More than 700 people, 150 engineers, 25 consultants worked for months to lay down 1,500 km of cables underground in the 16 square km area. Around 50,700 consumers were given service connections in a bid to rid the ancient city of Benaras of its even more ancient maze of electric wires that laced every nook and corner of this heritage city.
American author Samuel Langhorne Clemens, popularly known as Mark Twain, once remarked about Benares that it “is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”. That was decades before Varanasi got electricity.
Until about three years ago, if Twain’s ghost had visited old Kashi and noticed the maze of electrical wires running through its narrow lanes, he would’ve thrown in lots more “old” to his original quote. That’s how dilapidated the city’s power infrastructure looked.
During one of his earliest visits to his parliamentary constituency, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had quipped there were more wires in Varanasi than the number of power connections. He exhorted government officials to do something about it “so that some sun rays could penetrate the thick mesh and enter people’s homes and streets”.
Apart from being an eyesore, such labyrinthine model of power transmission is also to be blamed for electricity theft, transmission losses, faster infrastructure degradation, which in turn leads to frequent cuts, repairs and extra costs. Worse, people on the streets are in constant danger of falling victims to these hanging and swinging live wires.
In its very first budget, the Modi government announced the Integrated Power Development Scheme (IPDS), which was launched in Varanasi on 28 June 2015. Though primarily aimed at ensuring 24x7 power to all, it also intended to strengthen the sub-transmission network, metering, provisioning of solar panels at government buildings and so on, and was sanctioned an amount of Rs 572 crore. In the city, one of the themes was to replace overhead cables with underground ones, that is, to make the city “wireless”.
It was no mean task.
"Kashi is thousands of years old. But its modern infrastructure looks as ancient. No civic body has kept any record of how the city has developed over the years. We didn’t have any data on existing sewer and water pipelines, of BSNL [Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited] or DISCOM [Distribution Company] cables. All this is very daunting for anybody who wants to fix the mess,” says Sudhakar Gupta, the official-in-chief of IPDS project in Varanasi.
But he has done it.
Three years and several thousand man-hours later, the project is nearing completion and should be wrapped up by end of this month.
"The two-year work has finally concluded. As you talk to me, I am sending the last email related to the project," said Gupta, when we met him on Tuesday (8 May) at his office in the city’s Nagar Nigam complex. Gupta is a senior official with Powergrid, the consultant for the project.
Incidentally, Gupta has family roots in Kashi. “Though I worked and stayed in Delhi all my life, this project brought me to my ancestral city. It’s probably fate’s way of giving me an opportunity to serve,” he said.
Gupta has succeeded in executing arguably one of the most daunting power infrastructure projects in recent times not just in Varanasi but also in India. His formidable job entailed clearing the cramped, bustling, haphazard lanes of old Kashi of the maze of electrical wires running through them. He had to finish a long-pending task of underground cabling in the heart of the city.
Gupta sums up the project in numbers: "More than 700 people, 150 engineers, 25 consultants worked for months to lay down 1,500 km of cables underground in the 16 square km area: eight km along the ghats and stretching two km into the city. Around 50,700 consumers were given service connections. We had 40-50 different Whatsapp groups running at any given time during the course of the project. Any issues or problems that arose were solved quickly and without delay thanks to such an efficient communication channel that we had set up."
The numbers are impressive. Besides improving the aesthetics, the project has had a spillover effect. Power theft, which costs power DISCOMS hundreds of crores each year, has been curtailed drastically in the old Kashi area. The project has also brought down the aggregate technical and commercial (AT&C) losses from 45 per cent to less than 10 per cent. Legal connections have increased substantially. Customer complaints have come down from 8.7 per cent to 0.99 per cent. There are fewer power cuts. People no longer worry about winds or rains which were excuse enough for the power department to cut supply for fear of untoward incidents.
Gupta and his team have managed to save taxpayers’ money too in the process. "The project is unique in the sense that we delivered the work at a lesser cost than estimated. We were sanctioned Rs 432 crore for the work but we are concluding it at Rs 370 crore," he said. Almost 60 per cent of the cost was borne by the government while the rest came from the local DISCOM. But it was Powergrid which had the keys to money coffers. It was the final authority in awarding contracts to various players and paying them for the work executed. This helped speed things up as the work didn’t stop on account of lack of grants.
It’s not just the money that Gupta and his team have saved. They have completed the project comfortably before the deadline. He is all praise for the cooperation his team received from the people. “People of Benaras have high tolerance. Barring one or two incidents, we got support of the people. Junction boxes would lay there for days in the open and they weren’t misplaced,” he said.
However, Gupta is upset at the way civic authorities are handling the boxes. “We have installed them. Now, it is the municipality’s job to make sure they are well kept. At many places, one can see garbage accumulating under and near the boxes. Then, stray animals try to eat from that. They may get electrocuted. People should also take care that they don’t litter near the boxes,” he complains.
How are residents of old Kashi taking to this idea of going ‘wireless’?
The IPDS team had divided old Kashi into 16 zones. It started its work from the spacious and less congested Kabir Nagar. In fact, a month after the project started, in November 2016, PM Modi dropped by Kabir Nagar during a tour of Varanasi before the crucial Uttar Pradesh polls, mainly to check the progress of his pet programme.
He was pleased and so are the residents. A retired professor from Banaras Hindu University Devesh Chand Pant told Swarajya that the mesh of electrical wires has disappeared and residents enjoy 24X7 power supply.
"Fantastic. The impact is just fantastic," Pant, 60, said.
A few kilometres away at Dashashwamedh Ghat, shop owners are less enthusiastic. While the main street leading to the Ghat has none of the unsightly wires, the narrow lanes on the sides still do. "Galiyan baaki hai (the lanes are left). Where is this hundred per cent electricity connection they are talking about," said Supaat Jaiswal, a shop owner. Jaiswal's neighbour, who did not wish to be named, complained that several streets that were dug up are not restored yet. Surprisingly, he also rued that the junction boxes set up under the IPDS have partially blocked the view of his shop. "Hamara toh nuksaan hi hua hai (We have suffered a loss)," he said.
Zonal IPDS officer Swapnil Soni, however, said the shop owners are so used to dodging electricity bills that paying for its use hasn't exactly pleased them. He added that the pending civic works of the project is out of the purview of IPDS. "It's the municipal body's job," he said.
As in the narrow side lanes near Dashashwamedh Ghat, those leading to famous temples like Kashi Vishwanath and Kaal Bhairav, and Ghats like Manikarnika and Harishchandra, too don't provide a respite from the unpleasant view of dangling wires.
"Unlike what they say, not more than twenty-five per cent of the mesh has been cleared. A lot of houses, including my own, have not got new power connections," said Sanjay Pandey, a shop owner near Manikarnika Ghat.
IPDS officials admit that there are some lanes that could not see 100 per cent underground cabling. "Some 15-20 lanes are left. It just wasn't possible," said Gupta. "Not all the wires are electricity cables. Most of the wires that you see still hanging in streets are those of telephone and cable."
A walk in these bustling lanes of old Kashi reveals the complexities involved. These serpentine routes are so narrow they can't fit a four-wheeler. In the particularly busy Kachauri Gali leading to Manikarnika Ghat - where many Hindus want to be cremated in the hope of attaining moksha - a pedestrian can't walk for half-a-minute straight without stopping and leaning to give way to a cow or an arthi (dead body carried on shoulders by a group).
How does one dig up earth to lay cables without interrupting or causing inconvenience to the aggrieved families?
"In such lanes, all we would get was three to four hours. From past midnight to dawn," said Soni. "We would dig up the street and dump the soil manually in hand-driven carts in order to lay the wires. Before dawn, the street had to be restored to its previous state," he said.
"These lanes are always abuzz with festivities so the crowd never thins down. Some dignitary or the other keeps visiting too. Work slowed down several times due to such VIP [Very Important Person] movement," another officer Antariksh said.
There were also unexpected hurdles. Almost four months in 2016 and three months in 2017 were wasted due to heavy rains and floods along the Ganga, said Gupta.
In some areas, wary residents resisted the project fearing that the high density wires pose a danger. But such fears were finally allayed and work resumed.
In the absence of maps detailing existing water and sewer pipes, Powergrid workers often damaged them. Work would resume only after compensation was paid to the concerned agency.
A phrase you would often hear from proud residents of Kashi is that the city is made up of "mandir, galiyan and seedhiyan (temples, lanes and steps)". But while these may be the very pulse of the holy city, unregulated development around them has ensured that Kashi remains an unholy mess. "The tasks that normally take a couple of days cost the team well over two months in many cases," said Gupta.
He shared an anecdote, when the team stumbled upon a historical finding that would otherwise be exciting. "In one of those lanes, we discovered layers and layers of loose soil while digging up. The lane was more than a kilometre away from the Ganga. But our finding meant that the Ganga possibly flowed in a larger area than we know," he said. "It was an exciting discovery but for the job at hand, it was a headache."
In old Kashi, the degree of aesthetics and fresh power connectivity varies from area to area, but what residents throughout the city note is an increase in power supply, in many cases uninterrupted. In Chowk, Bhelupur, Maidagin and Godhowlia, residents said they see only occasional short power cuts, as opposed to nine to ten hours a day in the past.
"Earlier, even the slightest rains or winds would lead to power cuts. Not anymore," said a resident of Godhowlia Sanjay Yadav. "This has brought about major relief."
A resident of Bhelupur Shankar Lal Baranwal said he is saving money as he hardly uses generators for power now.
It was at Varanasi that Prime Minister Modi had launched the Rs 45,000-crore IPDS for the country. Last week, the project kick-started in Haridwar too, another city that needs urgent attention.
"The scale of the work was much larger in Varanasi. Haridwar seems so doable now," said Gupta.
"I can tell you, this was an ambitious project. And unprecedented in India.”
Gupta has blazed a trail in this very first and a most complicated IPDS project in the country. The other officers heading similar programmes in different parts of the country have their work cut out for them.