Beautification plan destroys oldest neighbourhoods in Varanasi

Close to 300 houses — 187 already demolished and 90 waiting to be razed — are making way for the Vishwanath Precinct Development Project
Around the temple of Lord Vishwanath — Shiva, the destroyer — in Varanasi, destruction is taking place on a scale this ancient city hasn’t witnessed in modern times. A strip of land — measuring 43,636 sq m — between the 18th century shrine and the River Ganga — is being cleared of all construction, many perhaps as old as the temple itself, so that pilgrims have an easier access through a wide and beautified corridor that has been planned under the Kashi Vishwanath Precinct Development Project. The project is being executed by Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple Trust, under the Uttar Pradesh government, but the driving force behind it is thought to be Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who represents Varanasi (or Banaras) in Parliament. Close to 300 houses — 187 already demolished and 90 waiting to be razed — are making way for the project, which has effectively wiped out some of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city, such as Lahori Tola. The first to settle here migrated from Lahore during the time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who had donated the gold that adorns the temple’s dome. Today, their sixth-generation descendants find themselves uprooted — quite suddenly. “We no longer call this place Lahori Tola, we call it Swargiya (Late) Lahori Tola. It has been wiped out by an earthquake — Modi earthquake,” says Ajay Kapoor, who sits on the steps of the building that served as the family house-cum-saree shop for generations. His employees are packing up the sarees, while the building awaits demolition; the houses around his are already rubble. With his business dead, Mr. Kapoor has plenty of time to kill, so he sits on the steps with some of his equally idle neighbours, having a chat over chai — a typical Banarasi pastime. They have always voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party, but now their anger against Mr. Modi is palpable. “Why should he care? By demolishing 300 houses, he will lose not even 10,000 votes. But Banaras is defined by its galis (narrow lanes), and by creating this corridor, he is robbing Banaras of its very identity,” says Mr. Kapoor. Mr. Kapoor and his family have received compensation — he refuses to reveal how much — but he says: “A house gets, say, Rs. 1 crore as compensation, but there are five brothers living in that house, so each brother gets only Rs. 20 lakh each. Can you buy a decent house for Rs. 20 lakh today? And what about our proximity to the temple — how can you compensate for that?” Since the project affects only those living in the 43,636 sq m of land connecting the temple to the river, opinion is divided on the irrevocable damage that has been caused by it.
In support
Many in the city, especially admirers of Mr. Modi, hail the move, saying it has rid the temple area of encroachments. According to them, the rightful owners were, in any case, not living in these buildings, which were occupied mostly by tenants paying a measly rent. Further, the emergence of old temples from many of the demolished structures has further strengthened their argument — and that of the government — that they had been constructed illegally over temples and that it was about time they were removed. “Change is always turbulent,” says Vishal Singh, the young bureaucrat who, as the CEO of the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple Trust, is executing the project with an iron hand, “but if you tell me change can’t happen, I won’t buy that.” So exactly whose brainchild is the project? “The plan was conceived in 2007. I would even say that the idea dates back to 1916 when Mahatma Gandhi visited the temple and was appalled by the filth and congestion around it. [Mr. Modi] has only provided a fillip to the project,” Mr. Singh said.

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