It’s late March and the summer heat is already palpable. A bulldozer is tearing down a brick-walled building exposing brightly coloured inner walls of tenements that are nearly a century old. Mountains of rubble lie everywhere studded with little temples and rows of buildings surround the debris. Amidst the rubble, a group of boys is playing a game of cricket in a little clearing and one young boy is trying to fly a kite on what seems like a windless day. A few locals have gathered to watch as a street game is rare in the area.
A year ago, a maze of buildings stood on the clearing with narrow streets barely enough for two or three people to walk alongside. When the demolition is complete, state authorities would have reclaimed 525,000 sq. ft., or 12 acres, of prime land on the banks of the Ganga, India’s most venerated river, and adjoining the Kashi Vishwanath temple, a popular Hindu temple that gets over 10 million visitors a year.
The Kashi Vishwanath corridor project, which is being personally supervised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and funded by the local Uttar Pradesh government, is monumental. Varanasi, considered one of the oldest living cities in the world, is also Modi’s political constituency from where he has won his last two elections.In a country where real estate and land redevelopment in public spaces is fraught with litigation, the project has successfully evacuated 250 families andover a 100 small businesses that had been in the area for at least 80 years and even longer in some cases. A year after the first deal was signed to buy out B.C. Agarwal, who owned a 2,000 sq. ft. house adjacent to the famed Kashi Vishwanath temple in March 2018 for ₹6 crore, the land acquisition stands nearly completed a good year ahead of schedule.
As a part of the dramatic transformation of the ancient city, the first in nearly 200 years, the land will be used to construct a 20-metre wide pathway for the about 320-metre distance from the river to the temple. The new construction is expected to cost the state government about ₹250 crore, in addition to the ₹298 crore already spent on land acquisition. Though no concrete plans are yet available, a walk-through created by Gujarat-based architecture firm HCP Design outlines a pilgrim centre, public utilities such as toilets, a library, cafes, and a museum. It will help ease congestion and make access easier for pilgrims to the temple, which has a golden spire and domes.
HCP Design, which also designed and executed the Sabarmati waterfront in Ahmedabad when Modi was state chief minister, is said to have won the Varanasi contract without a contest, which is unusual for such projects of national importance. “The project looked like an impossible task when it was proposed and so we decided to work in a time-bound fashion to move bureaucracy. We had to rethink a lot of procedures to expedite execution,” says Vishal Singh, CEO of the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple Trust and secretary of the Varanasi Development Authority (VDA). HCP Design did not respond to an email asking for details on the project.
My colleagues were sceptical and warned me of legal issues...but this was not an incremental change... I decided to take the plunge.Vishal Singh, secretary, Varanasi Development Authority
The project is now more than halfway through with the tough task of land acquisition mostly behind it. After this, the architects will take over but it is unclear what happens next.“The idea for the project is good but the execution is questionable. Everything was done so fast without putting enough information in the public, raising a lot of unanswered questions,”says retired professor Rana Singh, who has written half a dozen books on Varanasi.
Despite the political and religious ramifications, the project has got little attention. Adjoining the Kashi Temple is the Gyanvapi mosque, which some say was built on the foundations of the original temple by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. A section of Hindus want to reclaim the temple while local Muslims are concerned the mosque might meet the same fate as Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. The Supreme Court has ensured that the mosque won’t be brought down though it is hearing a case on the ownership of the land on which the mosque stands.
These issues are not going to be solved in a hurry. But architects and conservationists see a more immediate problem. They feel that as India develops economically, more and more heritage areas will be the focus for development. They fear that the way the Varanasi project was hastened could set a precedent for local governments to develop such historical sites. “People come to old neighbourhoods and historic sites to feel their roots and a city like Varanasi would have layers of history in it. To bulldoze a part of it will disturb the fabric of the locality if the development has not been well thought out,” says Brinda Somaya, co-founder of Mumbai-based architecture firm SNK associates.
In a way, the process of redevelopment of historic areas has already begun. In Punjab, the local government has started beautifying the areas around the Golden Temple in Amritsar and the appointment of a Jaipur-based architect has brought in styles and colours from the Pink City. The clean-up of the streets has provided relief to pilgrims though opinion is divided on the installation of statues of patriotic leaders on the roads leading up to the temple. Similarly, inPuri, the spaces around the Jagannath Temple have been widened and there are plans to clean up further. “Restoration should be as close to the original as possible and any extra elements introduced should be carefully designed to keep up with the originality,” says Gurmeet Rai, a Delhi-based conservation architect.
The Ministry of Tourism has launched an ambitious project for the development of India’s iconic tourist locations. For starters, the government has identified 17 Unesco World Heritage Sites and selected U.S.-based architecture firm HKS as the lead development planner for four of them: the Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri, Qutub Minar, and Red Fort.
Experts point to several such projects globally. In the historic city of Jerusalem, more complex forces are at play than in Varanasi.In little over a square kilometre, there are important holy sites of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, while a quarter of the area is occupied by Armenians. The heart of the Muslim shrine is disputed by the Jews and the city sees a constant influx of faithful during each of their holy days. With thousands of historic sites sprinkled around, the city focussed on improving facilities for its pilgrims and working to preserve what it inherited rather than changing it. On the other hand, though China has been making an effort to preserve historic monuments recently, in the early phase of development several traditional areas were razed to the ground to make way for modern development. “It almost seemed that China want-ed to forget its past,” says Rai.
The genesis for change in Varanasi was almost accidental.Singh was working with the VDA when a meeting with Modi brought up the broad idea to increase the convenience of devotees who come to the temple by at least providing them with basic amenities. Pilgrims have to line up in narrow, claustrophobic lanes choc-a-bloc with shops and vendors to get to the temple. Though this has been the practice since time immemorial, the lines are serpentine and it can take a few hours on special festive days. Women and children too stand in those queues for hours with no accessible toilet facilities or shelters in case of emergencies. Modi, in his drive for basic amenities, wanted to change that.
Several plans had already been suggested and Singh’s agency VDA was already working on a previous plan when Modi suggested a more drastic plan that involved clearing out the area in front of the temple all the way to the ghat. Nobody had ever thought of such a plan, given the high density of buildings and businesses in the area.“A lot of my colleagues were sceptical and even warned me of legal issues later in my career but this was not an incremental change. I decided to take the plunge in that very meeting,” says Singh.
A special post was created in the temple trust and Singh was given additional charge of helming it. It helped that the local government also belonged to the Bharatiya Janata Party and that chief minister Yogi Adityanath bought into the project and was willing to underwrite it completely. There were some real issues. This was not an essential infrastructure project and, therefore, citizens couldn’t be forced to give up their real estate. Then, according to rules, a government body cannot buy off properties for development reasons by paying more than the notified value. Singh, with his temple trust portfolio, had no such compulsions.
In the proximity of the temples, none of the homeowners and businessmen wanted to sell at those rates as they could earn a perpetual income from pilgrims. There were also local rules that allowed for permanent tenancy andat historic rates. Old tenants wouldn’t vacate without compensation. Says B.C. Agarwal, the first person to sell his house for the project:“My tenants were paying me peanuts and it made no economic sense to be in my house.The project officials paid me and also took on the headache of my tenants. It was a great deal for me.”
Singh and his team surveyed each and every home, business, and tenant and went through the documents pertaining to ownership and legal issues involved. After buying out Agarwal, Singh had more success as there were others too who thought the money was good. Soon after the houses were bought, the demolitions convinced people that the government was serious about the changes. ToSingh’s advantage, several properties did not have proper documents as generations had failed to maintain them or a tenth of them were illegal. Some tenants were not willing to move out without alternative accommodation. Some 70% of the properties were easy to acquire as the project office was offering two to three times the market rate and was willing to solve legal issues. A few held out but eventually sold out. “The last few who held out only wanted to bargain more butas they saw the grounds clearing up they too sold out,” says an officer in the project office, who did not wish to be identified. Singh adds: “It was a tricky deal. We had to exert only that much pressure that it didn’t become a legal problem.”
Singh expects to wind up his part of the jobin the project soon. In another 18 months,visitors to the temple will have a brand new pathway even as earlier residents settle down to a new life. Agarwal, who sold his property in Varanasi, has moved to Navi Mumbai and bought an apartment close to his son. He spends his days watching television. As his life moves on, a lot is also changing in the templetown of Varanasi.
(This story was originally published in the August 2019 issue of the magazine. )