Varanasi witnessed a tremendous change in human development parameters and infrastructure – all in a single term of any Member of Parliament.
Will Varanasi vote again for development?
Star constituencies always attract pre-election attention in India. When a prominent leader – an incumbent prime minister, a challenger to the post, or the president of a national party – contests a Lok Sabha seat, there is a media frenzy surrounding the election. Opinions polls dot the run-up to the election. As soon as the results are out – with the prominent leader winning more often than not – the constituency is forgotten. Amethi and Raebareli bear testimony to this.
The Varanasi election in 2014 was a different one. Narendra Modi, then the prime minister (PM) candidate, announced emotionally – “Mai aaya nahi hu, mujhe Ma Ganga ne bulaya hai”. Modi contesting from the holiest Hindu city, the seat of ancient knowledge and the embodiment of dharma, held a great signalling value for the 2014 election. But what has happened since his election is the real story of the star constituency – the story of a Member of Parliament (MP) putting sincere efforts to change the life of his constituents, not just walking away after an easy win.
A constituency with over 17 lakh voters in 2014, Varanasi district is home to 37 lakh Indians as per the 2011 census. Despite the rich historical and religious significance, the city has been largely neglected. The stories of burning funeral pyres, dead bodies floating in the Ganga, people waiting in small houses to die so that they attain moksha, dirty ghats around Ganga – these were the stereotypes long associated with Varanasi. In just about five years, the perceptions have changed completely.
The PM’s constituency hasseen structural, institutional, and sustainable changes in these five yearsacross areas. Prime Minister Modi has brought the full force of his nationalprograms to Varanasi.
The improvements to the Ganga ecosystem in Varanasi are perhaps the most significant. Ganga cleaning programmes have been going on for decades, without much success. The Modi government adopted a scientific approach to the river cleaning, attacking key root causes and finding permanent solutions to the polluting causes.
In November 2018, Modi inaugurated two large sewage infrastructure projects. A 140 million litre per day (MLD) sewage treatment plant (STP) at Dinapur and three sewage pumping stations at Chaukaghat (140 MLD), Phulwaria (7.6 MLD), and Saraiya (3.7 MLD) will prevent river pollution. Foundation stone has also been laid for managing sewage at Ramnagar, a neighbouring town, better. This project includes a 10 MLD capacity STP and a project to divert four drains away from the river. A 28-kilometre-long relieving trunk sewer is also being constructed between the Varuna and Assighats, named after eponymous rivers merging with Ganga. These projects are designed to increase Varanasi’s sewage treatment capacity to more than 400 MLD, which can meet the city’s needs till 2035.
The Swachh Bharat programme has been implemented in Varanasi addressing the cleanliness of ghats as well. There are 88 ghats in the city, but five hold special significance – Adi Keshav, Assi, Dashashwamedh, and Manikarnika, Panchganga. Most of these ghats have been adopted by large corporate houses after contributions to the Ganga Cleaning Fund were notified under the Corporate Social Responsibility provisions of the 2013 Companies Act.
A collective outcome of this focus on the river Ganga has been the increased international exposure for the holy river and most the most famous associated city. In December 2015, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe performed the Ganga aarti along with Modi. In March 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron took a boat ride on the Ganga along with Modi.
The 2019 Pravasi Bharatiya Divas was organised in Varanasi, an attempt to showcase Indian roots and heritage to the daughters and sons of the soil now making their name in distant lands. As the international spotlight shines on the city, the local administration is creating amenities which would be standard to most global tourist destinations. In September 2018, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister (CM) Yogi Adityanath flagged off a luxury cruise named Alaknanda. The cruise will take the riders on a river tour of Varanasi, covering most ghats, rituals along the river, and creating a local experience onboard.
Connectivity is the most important part of tourism. PM Modi has spoken about his vision to develop Varanasi as the Gateway to the East. The number of flights landing or taking off from the city has doubled in the last five years to almost 17,000 a year. Varanasi also gets new interesting connections like the direct one to Bangkok. The number of flyers using the significantly improved connectivity has more than doubled in the last five years to just over 2 million in 2018.
It is not just the connectivity as a tourist destination which the Modi government has focused on. Varanasi is also part of an ambitious multimodal transport (MMT) programme, which aims to develop national waterways and draw synergies between rail, road, and water transport.
The Jal Marg Vikas Project (JMVP) was approved in January 2017 for capacity augmentation of navigation on National Waterway-1 (NW-1). National Waterway-1 is an inland water transport route between Haldia in West Bengal to Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh. Jal Marg Vikas is a Rs 5,369 crore World Bank aided project on NW-1 (River Ganga), aimed at augmenting the navigational capacity of the Varanasi to Haldia stretch of the river. This project will enable commercial navigation of at least 1500-tonne vessels.
The objective of the project is to promote inland waterways as a cheap and environment-friendly means of transportation, especially for cargo movement.
This waterway will function as a link to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Nepal and other east and south-east Asian countries through the Kolkata Port and Indo-Bangladesh Protocol Route.
The JMVP includes the development of fairway, multi-model terminals at Varanasi, Haldia and Sahibganj, modern River Information System, a strong river navigation system, digital Global Positioning System (DGPS), night navigation facilities, and construction of navigational lock of Farakka. Its development and operations will provide direct employment generation to 46,000 people and indirect employment of 84,000 in states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and West Bengal.
PM Modi inaugurated India’s first inland MMT Port on river Ganga at Ramnagar in Varanasi in November 2018. The PM received the container vessel that sailed from Kolkata on the inland waterway on 30 October 2018, carrying cargo belonging to food and beverages giant PepsiCo India. M V Rabindranath Tagore, the inland container vessel that PM Modi received in Varanasi was the first container movement on an inland waterway in India since Independence. The vessel moved 16 containers, equivalent to 16 truckloads, on its inaugural journey. The inland port can anchor two ships at a time simultaneously.
Two significant initiatives linked to the energy sector making a significant impact on the city lie at the intersection of modernization and improving civic amenities.
When Modi took over as the Varanasi MP, the old part of the city was clogged by a network of overhead electricity cables. A maintenance nightmare at the minimum and a public health and safety hazard at the extreme, this web of power cables is a thing of the past in many parts of the city. Former Union Minister of State for power and coal Piyush Goyal announced the Rs 432-crore project for underground cabling work for Varanasi in June 2015. The pilot project was rolled out in Kabir Nagar and Ansarabad.
This was not an easy project. The implementation was riddled with typical Indian urban non-planning and bureaucratic hurdles. Dealing with existing underground utility lines for sewage, water supply, and telecom by BSNL proved to be a big challenge. There was no map of these lines – they were implemented as and when various agencies deemed it convenient. The Powergrid workers often damaged these exiting utilities, stopping and delaying work till compensation was paid to the agency concerned.
The completed project was, however, worth the wait. The line and revenue losses have reduced significantly after underground cabling.
Line loss is down to 9.9%from 42.7%, while consumer complaints have dropped as well.
Powergrid took two years to lay the underground cables, which now connect more than 50,000 users in a 16 square kilometre area.
The second project in the energy sector is the Varanasi section of the Urja Ganga network. The Modi government is promoting a gas-based economy under this programme. The Varanasi city gas distribution network was inaugurated by Modi in July 2018. The Urja Ganga programme in its entirety aims to provide piped cooking gas in Eastern India via a 2,050-km pipeline between Jagdishpur in Uttar Pradesh and Haldia in West Bengal. Varanasi now has a 28-kilometre long state of the art gas pipeline, which can cover more than 1 lakh domestic consumers.
The world’s oldest city has long experienced quotidian infrastructure deficit. The Modi tenure addressed some of these challenges as well. Two key road projects were inaugurated by Modi in November 2018. The 16.55-km Varanasi Ring Road Phase-I and the four-laning and construction of 17.25-km-long Babatpur-Varanasi Road on National Highway 56 will greatly ease traffic woes in the city. The Babatpur Airport Highway links Varanasi city to the airport and creates better linkages further to Jaunpur, Sultanpur and Lucknow. The flyover at Harhua and a road overbridge at Tarna, the travel time from Varanasi city to the airport will significantly reduce. The Ring Road provides easier access to Sarnath, an important Buddhist pilgrimage site. Several highways projects are also under construction, improving connectivity between Varanasi and other cities in Uttar Pradesh.
The Modi government has regularly integrated trade and commerce with its domestic and foreign policies. In Varanasi, the Deendayal Hastkala Sankul, a trade facilitation centre for handicrafts was inaugurated in December 2016. This centre aims to promote the handloom, handicraft and silk products of Varanasi. It provides help to weavers and artisans in marketing their wares to domestic as well as international buyers.
The BSE Institute Limited has set up an Atal Incubation Center - Mahamana Foundation for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Varanasi. This incubator provides co-working space for start-ups, provides for ideation and tinkering labs, and training facilities for budding entrepreneurs.
Modi had started his 2014 election campaign from the iconic BHU. Improvements to the university have naturally been a part of his development agenda. Apart from the above-mentioned incubation center, the BHU also got a regional ophthalmology centre and a vedic science centre.
Varanasi is also being developed as the hub for healthcare facilities in the densely populated eastern India. The Tata Memorial Hospital now runs the 101-bed Railway Cancer Hospital in Varanasi. This was the first of its kind attempt by the Tata Memorial Trust to extend its cancer-care footprint. The new, expanded Homi Bhabha Cancer Hospital has 180 beds and focuses on treating curable cancers as well as young patients. The aim is to minimise the need for those living in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to come all the way to Mumbai for cancer treatment. The Tata Memorial Trust will also open another cancer care facility in the BHU. This facility, called the Mahamana Cancer Hospital will have 350 beds, with modern medical facilities.
As the Varanasi residents improve their ease of living, it is tautological that the resident God of Kashi Lord Shiva sees changes around Him too. The Yogi government has been on an anti-encroachment drive in the city, which has unearthed more than 80 old temples, which had been appropriated by private parties! The government has also acquired more than 300 houses, eventually to be demolished, to create the Kashi Vishwanath Pathway.
This pathway, a 50-feet wide road, will help pilgrims move easily from the Kashi Vishwanath temple to the ghats on the Ganga. Thousands of devotees throng the Kashi Vishwanath temple daily, and this number goes to more than a million on special occasions. The current narrow pathways leading to the temple create long queues and inconvenience the devotees. The pathway will solve this access and crowd control problem. Once developed, the temple will be accessible from the Manikarnika and Lalita ghats.
No other Lok Sabha constituency has witnessed this amount of change in a single term of any Member of Parliament. A 360-degree view on human development parameters, resolving local bottlenecks, creating new permanent infrastructure, and reimagining the city – all of this has happened in the Modi term.
Compare this work to the state of the permanent star constituencies like Amethi and Raebareli in Uttar Pradesh – the contrast could not be starker. Will Varanasi vote again for development?
This article first appeared in The Pulse and has been republished here with permission.