India Aims to Make Forlorn City a Model for Revival by Stephanie Strom, The New York Times
Cleaning Up Varanasi is a Test for Narendra Modi
By Stephanie Strom, New York Times
17 July, 2014
VARANASI, India — The big question on many minds here is: How long will the electricity last?
Since Narendra Modi was elected prime minister in May, residents in this forlorn city on the Ganges — at least those with wiring — have had near constant electricity, compared with the failures totaling as much as eight to 10 hours a day in the past.
In the last month, Ahsan Khan, a carpet exporter and owner of a local car dealership, said he had relied less on his backup generators. “That’s a big cost savings for me personally and for anyone doing business here,” he said.
Mr. Modi has promised to tackle Varanasi’s legion of problems and turn this holiest — and one of the dirtiest — of Hindu cities into a showcase of Indian culture and small business undergirded by better infrastructure. Along with improving the electricity supply, he has pledged new roads to alleviate congestion, suburban areas to reduce crowding for the one million-plus residents and support for the weaving and tourism businesses that are pillars of this city’s economy.
Many are looking at Varanasi as a case study for what the prime minister hopes to achieve across vast swathes of India that never boomed the way Mumbai and Bangalore did and are now suffering even more as the country’s economy has slowed.
But the challenges are big, even in just one city. Varanasi’s roads are pocked with potholes and washed-out patches. Piles of construction rubble studded with garbage are feasting grounds for pigs and dogs. In many places, raw sewage flows in shallow ditches that flood in monsoon season, spreading their contents into streets. The showcase ghats — the line of more than 80 stone stairways leading down to the Ganges — are dirty and thronged with hawkers, holy men and con artists.
Businessmen are fond of joking that the last major infrastructure project here took place in the 1970s, when a railway station and motor works were built.
“There is a hopelessness that has steeped into people here, but that is changing with the election of the prime minister,” said Raj Kumar Agrawal, an aide to Varanasi’s mayor, Ramgopal Mohley. “People are excited for the first time in a long time.”
Early signs of Mr. Modi’s commitment to Varanasi are largely cosmetic, like more consistent electricity and cleaner railway stations. Last week, the Railway Ministry pledged roughly 2 billion rupees, or about $33 million, to overhaul Varanasi’s main station.
Speculators betting on a Modi-backed renaissance have also pushed land prices up, particularly in the area around the airport. Mr. Khan said he had secured a deal to buy some land about 12 kilometers outside the city for 550,000 rupees, or roughly $9,200, before Mr. Modi was elected prime minister. But he was ultimately outbid.
“I then went to Delhi, and by the time I got back, after he had been elected, the owners told me they had an offer for 6.2 lakh” — a lakh equals 100,000 rupees, or around $1,700 — “and they sold it for 7 lakh,” Mr. Khan said. “Though not to me.”
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The budget proposed by the Modi government last week has further fueled hope, a commodity in short supply here. Mr. Modi allocated 20.4 billion rupees to clean up the Ganges, which is expected to help Varanasi. The city also should benefit from other budget goals, including 1 billion rupees designated for repairing historic ghats, 2 billion rupees to support craft textile manufacturing and a 5 billion rupee package aimed at enhancing the so-called tourist circuit that encompasses Sarnath, Varanasi and Gaya, cities holy to Hindus and Buddhists.
Perhaps even more important, though, was the news that Mr. Modi will open a branch of his office here.
“These are important announcements for the city of Varanasi,” said Ashok Kapoor, a carpet exporter who did not vote for Mr. Modi, although his wife did. “Once a local office of Modi is established here, all these projects will see the light of day.”
Mr. Kapoor said that the office would give the prime minister a direct line to his constituency here, and allow his deputies to relay feedback and ensure that promises are kept.
All of these plans are aimed at restoring Varanasi’s pre-eminence as a destination for religious pilgrims and tourists seeking a glimpse of its turn-of-the-century glory, when the Rev. Charles Phillips Cape described it as “the Oxford and Mecca of Hinduism.”
The city has four universities, including one of the largest residential colleges in Asia, Banaras Hindu University, and one of the few remaining Sanskrit universities. Varanasi’s religious significance for Hindus and Buddhists is high. Anyone who dies here, according to Hindu belief, escapes the cycle of reincarnation. The site where Buddha is thought to have given the first philosophy lesson is also nearby.
But while Varanasi attracts more than three million tourists a year, tourism surprisingly ranks second in the city’s economy. Light industry and cottage businesses — like weaving, making brass and copper ware, and curing betel leaves — contribute the largest share of economic activity. A government assessment of the city in 2006 concluded that “chaos” and a lack of maintenance of tourist sites and infrastructure, among other things, were obstacles to tourism.
“If I want to take my customers to a nice restaurant, I can’t take them anywhere near the river,” said Ashok Gupta, owner of Banaras Beads, which makes beads and costume jewelry. “It is impossible to get there and too dirty.”
His priorities for the city are cleanliness and better infrastructure for water and sanitation. He would love to see elegant hotels go up along the Ganges, replacing the cheap hotels frequented by backpackers that occupy that prized real estate.
Also on his wish list are road improvements. The city has only three trunk roads, and delivery trucks are prohibited from entering Varanasi during the day.
“This means I have to pay more to get raw materials, like the glass rods we use to make beads,” Mr. Gupta said.
The prime minister favors a ring road that would allow delivery trucks and other vehicles to avoid the city center and more directly reach their destinations. “A ring road is a must,” said Mr. Mohley, the mayor.
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Mr. Mohley, who was invited to New Delhi to meet with Mr. Modi and his team shortly after the election, has stepped up his efforts to expedite improvement projects. Local newspapers have delighted in the mayor’s treks around town to identify buildings and temporary structures that encroach on the already narrow roads.
“I feel like something can happen now, unlike before,” the mayor said.
The city already had declared some roads one-way, though enforcement is lax and ineffectual when it comes to the many cows that roam this city. Mr. Mohley dreams of multilevel parking garages and pedestrian-only zones.
He has also accelerated the installation of sewage pipes aimed at replacing the shallow open ditches that serve as the sewers in many parts of town. At the moment, however, there is no treatment facility to connect the pipes. The city can treat only about a third of the 350 million liters of sewage it produces each day, Mr. Mohley said.
A project to build a new waste-treatment plant that was financed more than a decade ago remains stalled, as the state government has yet to find a site. It is a reminder, Mr. Mohley said, that the central government can make all the promises it wants but if the state government refuses to carry them out, nothing will happen.
Still, the prime minister has made cleaning the Ganges a priority, which cannot happen without addressing Varanasi’s sewage problems. Sudhir Krishna, a confidant of Mr. Modi’s, recently inspected Varanasi’s current sewage treatment facilities and solid waste treatment plant.
Other plans include the development of so-called satellite cities, essentially suburbs, like those around New Delhi, to reduce traffic in the central city. Institutions are planned to develop traditional weaving and to train hospitality workers.
The prime minister has said he wants to see Varanasi become a Unesco World Heritage city. To that end, he already has committed 180 million rupee, or a little more than $3 million, to cleaning and shoring up the ghats and building jetties for better organization of the boats that ferry tourists on the river.
“The World Heritage people have been here several times, and each time they leave saying there isn’t the needed infrastructure to support the kind of tourism a World Heritage site needs,” said Raghvendra Upadhyay, who owns a business offering tours around Varanasi, Groovy Tours, which caters to foreign visitors.
Mr. Upadhyay is a jaded millennial, but he, too, is infected by Modi hope. “I want to believe in him,” he said.