Irreverent city might not be game for a Kyoto-like transformation
Puja Bhattacharjee | March 31, 2015 | Varanasi
A s dusk sets in, Asi ghat comes to life. A stage has been set up and performers gather in colourful garb. Locals and tourists begin to occupy the steps of the ghat. Tea sellers and boatmen do brisk business. It’s soon time for a newly established routine – of celebrating traditional dance and music from the famous gharanas of Varanasi. Organised by the youth, art and culture department of Uttar Pradesh, these events have become a cultural mainstay of the city.
A curious tourist, meanwhile, takes a boat ride from Asi to Manikarnika ghat in the twilight to see the ‘real’ Varanasi. Gliding in the smooth waters, the boat draws an arc of about 4 km on the Ganga, offering its occupants a complete picture of life.
Oblivious of the births and deaths, which are celebrated in equal measure in Varanasi, the Dashashwamedh ghat offers a unique spectacle every evening. When the clock strikes 6.00, five priests take their positions by the river bank, lifting their big, bright, brass lamps to begin the Ganga aarti. Devotional songs play in the background, as thousands occupying the steps of the ghat and hundreds of others watching from the boats parked in front of the ghat sway to the music with their eyes closed and hands folded. In sync with each other, the priests draw a circular pattern in the air with their lamps as if in a meditative trance. This is a newly adopted tradition borrowed from the old and famous aarti in Haridwar, another temple town up the same river.
The aarti lasts for an hour. At the end of it the devout pick prearranged flowers and earthen lamps on sal leaves to offer it to the river god. Close by, a newborn cries as he is welcomed to the world amid rituals, conch shells are blown by priests as relatives in festive colours fuss over the infant.
Further ahead, the Manikarnika ghat sees life in full circle. Two pyres burn incessantly, the departed being long consigned to flames and the retinue dispersed since, leaving behind a dozen grieving members from the families of the dead. The dead, some even brought to the holy town from nearby cities, are cremated here in the hope that they will attain moksha (free from eternal cycle of birth and death according to Hindu belief). The majority of the bodies are cremated on wood pyres. The city has an electric crematorium, but it is seldom functional. Sometimes, due to a rush on the ghats, half-burnt bodies are committed to the river.
Akhilesh Raghubanshi, director, institute of environment and sustainable development, Banaras Hindu University (BHU), says the government has tried and failed to keep the electric crematorium functional. “Selling wood is big business. The electric crematorium is a threat to wood sellers. Fearing that they would go out of business, they connive with government officials to render the electric crematoriums useless. Their nexus is causing an untold damage to the river,” Raghubanshi told Governance Now.
Once away from the ghats into the city, one has to manoeuvre between cyclists, bikers and autos which ply in every possible direction. The chaos is completed by the cows on the roads. Often a car driver can be seen stretching his arm out to push and shove a beast to make his way. A boy carrying a chandelier on his head for a wedding procession stops to pose for a tourist’s camera and is almost knocked off by a matador trying to overtake the procession, the chandelier falling off his head in the melee.
The Varanasi municipal corporation (VMC) has tried in vain to rein in the wandering cows and relocate the hundreds of monkeys to nearby forested areas after stiff opposition from locals and animal welfare NGOs who want these animals left alone.
Traffic moves at snail’s pace in almost all of Varanasi; it may take an hour to cover 10 kilometres. The idling engines contribute to the smoke from the scores of funeral pyres on the ghats every day. This is perhaps the only Indian city with a population of more than one million that has no functional traffic lights. Mixing of vehicles further slows down the traffic.
The entire city is littered with garbage. Even the better maintained posh areas of the city cannot escape the stench of rotting waste. The VMC has a tough time dealing with garbage disposal due to funds and staff crunch. In 2008, the contract for disposal of solid waste was given to Gurgaon-based company A2Z under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM). After door-to-door collection, the waste used to be transported to a dump about 25 km away from the city. This arrangement was in place for a year, before the project failed. Unable to fulfil its mandate, A2Z was notified about the cancellation of the agreement on January 31.
The corporation now manages the city on its own. It, however, operates at the 1967 levels of sanctioned staff strength (2,600). It employs barely half that number to clean the city, which is imploding under population pressure. The VMC employs 1,300 municipal workers and has 1,100 contractual workers, which is grossly inadequate.
The Banarasi saree is an integral part of the city’s economy; 30 percent of the population of Varanasi is engaged in weaving of sarees and their trade. The narrow lanes of Bazardiha are marked by garbage and overflowing drains. This is where most saree weavers work and live. The weavers take bulk orders from wholesalers and weave accordingly.
Sitting in the pit of the loom and weaving a saree in a small dingy room, Mohammed Zaheer says business has gone down drastically in the past 10 months. “Out of the six weaving machines that I have, only two are functioning at present. During the Congress rule remuneration was around '120-130 per saree. Now it is '70 and the payment comes after two weeks. We do not get paid till the wholesaler sells the sarees,” he adds. During the monsoon in 2014, weavers had to stop work for a month as their looms got flooded.
The sewage system in Varanasi is more than 60 years old. The existing sewage line is 6-9 inches wide which was meant for a population of 2.5 lakh. Today, the population exceeds 36 lakh. The sewage lines cannot take the pressure of the present population and hence overflow during monsoon. Situated on lowland, Bazardiha is more vulnerable. The government plans to lay wider sewage lines under the JnNURM phase 2. The VMC, too, has been sanctioned '2 crore to lay proper roads in Bazardiha.
The pitiable condition of Bazardiha is further worsened by the absence of a school or a hospital, the nearest being 2 km away. An under-construction madrasa is the only option for the residents of the colony where children of all ages are crammed in a small room. Officials cite lack of funds for the slow pace of development work.
The city has only one two-decade old sewage treatment plant with a capacity of 101.8 MLD, whereas the city generates about 300 MLD of sewage every day. The excess sewage (dyes from sarees, human waste and that from the dairy industry) flows untreated into the Ganga.
Two sewage treatment plants of 120 MLD and 140 MLD are being built in collaboration with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). They are expected to become functional by 2017.
Ganga, the giver of life, the cradle of the Indian civilisation, weeps silently every day as garbage and human faeces from its 90 banks washes into her holy waters. It may be noted that 15 percent of the city’s population who do not have toilet facility are completely dependent on the river. VMC, in collaboration with JICA, planned to build 205 community toilets to tackle open defecation on the banks of the Ganga, but due to high population density, land was a big problem. Instead, 105 toilets will be built now. The VMC has also appealed to government offices and universities to donate land for the project that is expected to be completed by July 2015.
Can Kashi be Kyoto?
Culturally, Varanasi is averse to adopting anything new. Mark Twain described the city as “twice as old as civilisation”. Yet, Varanasi has a unique tendency to make the alien its inalienable whole. Take for instance the manner in which people of Varanasi voted overwhelmingly for prime minister Narendra Modi and worshipped him like a demigod. But that is only half truth. The full truth is that culturally, spiritually and historically, Varanasi is inherently irreverent, especially so towards authority and its figures. Modi would come across with this reality sooner than later.
In his flamboyance, Modi conjured up a dream for Varanasi or Kashi, of turning it into Kyoto, an ancient city of Japan which has successfully preserved its beauty while embracing modern amenities. Varanasi cheered as Modi signed the Kyoto-Kashi agreement in Japan soon after he became the PM. Initially, the city even seemed to be finally making some progress. But, nine months on, roads are still bad; traffic is just as horrible; garbage is strewn all over the city and there is no improvement in the economy.
“The most important thing I gauged from my long association with Japan is that the Japanese have tremendous loyalty to their culture. Everybody is conscious and cooperating. They do not wait for the government to act. Instead, they take initiative and start working for their city, and the government helps them,” says Rana PB Singh, professor of cultural geography and heritage studies at BHU. “Here the exact opposite happens,” he continues. Singh says they have waited for the prime minister to start the Swachh Bharat campaign. “Even then two hours after cleaning the streets we find the same dirt and garbage all over again.”
Architect RC Jain, who was part of the delegation that went to Kyoto with the prime minister, says, “There is a vast difference between Kyoto and Varanasi in the width of roads, population density and traffic planning. Kyoto has very beautifully amalgamated the old and the new,” he says. He points out that in spite of being the holiest of holy cities; the temples of Varanasi do not have ramps or escalators for the old and disabled. “Apart from the Viswanath temple and the river Ganga, is there any other attraction (in Varanasi)? Kashi is touted as the city of Shiva but there is no library on Shiva, no drama or shows on religion, no pravachan shala where discourses can happen. Pilgrims finish their agendas within three days,” he says.
The Varanasi circumference (known for the Panchkoshi yatra) has 108 temples which is unique in the whole world. Why not develop it as a heritage trail, a spiritual journey trail and market it? “In Kyoto, the trusts which run temples are linked with the government. There is no threat of interference as both are friends. They are supporting each other,” says Singh. But in Varanasi, he says, the state and the centre are not cooperating with each other and the religious mafia is taking advantage of the situation. “Why can’t the money earned by temples be used for the greater good of society? Universities and institutions in Japan adopt areas, but the BHU has not adopted any area in Varanasi for development and survey,” he adds.
Kyoto-like development of Kashi is lost on an average citizen, too. Vinay Rai, a resident and a businessman succinctly puts what many have been feeling. “I can imagine a Delhi or Lucknow like development of Varanasi. But people here have no idea about Kyoto. How can we emulate something we haven’t seen and have no idea about?”
Varanasi is home to more than 36 lakh people. Its floating population (mostly tourists and people coming from villages) accounts for another 60,000 per day. By 2021, the population is likely to increase by 28 percent. Migration is a strange phenomenon here. Old inhabitants are moving to Delhi and beyond, while people from rural areas, particularly from Bihar, are coming to live here due to lack of educational opportunities in their villages and other neighbouring towns. People do not come here for a job, but for their children’s education. The development authority limit extends to large areas surrounding the original city, but the municipal corporation services have not followed the ever-expanding city limits. The city’s green cover is lower than that of Jaipur, which is situated in a desert. Ideally, a city should have 25 percent green cover in order to have healthy environmental balance.
Jean-Francois Chamarier Vitet is a professor of literature from France. He was travelling from Delhi to Kolkata and discovered Varanasi on his way. He wonders why the rest of the city cannot be like BHU which has so much open space and lots of greenery. “Staying at the BHU you can’t imagine there is so much chaos outside,” he says.
Lizz Chard of the US and Emine Akbaba from Germany are photographers who travelled to the city to find out what the “fuss” was all about. “We are not totally disappointed. We love to sit on the ghats and enjoy. The lanes and bylanes behind the ghats are most interesting,” says Chard. The traffic situation definitely needs improvement, adds Akbaba.
Many regard novelist Kashinath Singh as the city’s most fabled chronicler. Every evening he visits tea stalls on the Asi ghat and interacts with people. “This is the best way,” he says, “to find out what people are thinking.” What does he think of the Kashi-Kyoto agreement? “I was in Japan for 21 days. During that time I visited many places, including Kyoto. I noticed a strange characteristic of the Japanese people. They never smile,” he said. “Whenever I smiled they looked at me with surprise,” he added. He feels the Japanese sense of discipline, though praiseworthy, has robbed them of their joy and laughter.
Singh also believes the unique culture of Varanasi will be destroyed if we try to emulate Kyoto.
(The story appears in the March 16-31, 2015, issue)