A senior police official takes out a sheet of paper and begins drawing the map of Varanasi. It is a maze of roads and lanes.
He then looks up and says, “Do you know of any other city in the world which from the beginning to the end is populated by shops on both sides of the road? The shopkeeper then rents out the space in front to another street vendor.” This means, he adds, that all arterial roads are blocked, with no designated spot for parking. “This city may be religious, but its DNA is commercial. There is no separation between the residential and commercial. What do we do?”
His sense of resignation is shared by the BJP mayor of the city, Ram Gopal Mohley.
When asked why his city remains filthy and congested, Mohley reacts, angrily, “This is the oldest living city in the world. There are 18 lakh people in the city itself. Every month, there is a Kumbh-like crowd for a festival. The temple is located within the city centre, and there has been no expansion. We cannot do development by stopping traditions. What do we do?”
There is no city in UP - or perhaps in all of north India - that exemplifies the challenges and contradictions of urban governance more acutely than Varanasi. It is ancient yet confronted by both modern demographic and commercial impulses. It is a symbol of political power - for PM Narendra Modi is an MP from the city - yet political and state authorities are either helpless or unable to cope with seeming anarchy of the city. It is the gateway to one of India’s poorest parts, Purvanchal, yet there are few who believe that UP’s 2017 elections will be fought on transforming the city and the region.
From a boatman at the ghat to a tourist shopping for saris, from a long-time resident of the city to government officials, there is a strikingly common complaint about Varanasi - the congestion and the traffic. It symbolises both the charm and the decay of the city.
But the diagnosis first. Ravindar Jaiswal, BJP MLA from north Varanasi constituency, reiterates a point made by the Mayor and says, “The core city, from Varun to Assi, is six to seven kilometres. The entire municipal authority area, from Sarnath in the north to BHU in the south, is 18 kms.” This is home ro not just the city’s population. “Tourists and pilgrims are here in lakhs. Varanasi is also the capital of east UP - and people from all neighbouring districts come for work.”
The police official, who wished to speak anonymously, said this could have been managed if there had been planned urbanisation. “But nothing was planned, the density increased exponentially, and now there is a crisis of civil amenities.”
When asked the implications for law enforcement, he explains, “We can manage motors, but we cannot manage traffic. Our patrolling is weak in the old city with narrow lanes. Our response time to any incident is slow because of the congestion.”
The institutional discord - between SP and BJP, between political representatives and bureaucrats - does not help.
SP runs the state government, but BJP has the most mayors in UP’s bigger cities. Mohley complains that the state has not implemented the 74th amendment which empowered local self government in urban areas - this makes them weak. “Local government is only in name. We cannot even clear residential maps. It is in the hands of the development authority, which is the destruction authority.”
The Mayor’s complaint about the absence of 74th amendment is genuine - but it would have struck a wider chord if the municipality was more effective in areas within its ambit. An official in the Mayor office told HT about the rampant corruption. When asked what were its specific forms, he responded, with a laugh, “Everywhere. We have cars for officials, dumper trucks to clean the city. For diesel, petrol, mobile, and car repair, bills are always inflated. Take another instance. The engineering department repairs roads and lays out sewer lines. They show it on paper but no work gets done. Or work is done in a manner that they will have to dig it again, to make more money. And there is zero supervision.”
There is also conflict and lack of coordination between the various institutions that govern the city - the municipal corporation, the city development authority, the public works department, the Jal Nigam, the electricity board.
As entrepreneur Gaurav Kapur says, “Today, the road is dug up to lay out a sewage line. It is partly covered up. Tomorrow, another department comes to lay underground electricity cables. Then, someone comes to install fibre optic cable. The departments don’t talk to each other. It is chaos.”
A roadmap for 2017?
The age of the city, the demography, the chaos cannot, however, be an excuse for the lack of governance.
Kapur argues, “Is the state then telling us it can do nothing? Then officials should resign. What stops them from better planning, from developing a satellite city which would take away some of the population pressure off, from at least stopping sewage from going into the Ganga?”
Is there hope for change?
Jaiswal, the MLA, speaks of the centre’s decision to allocate Rs 18,000 crore for roads around the city - a bypass road so people from neighbouring districts don’t have to pass the city; 4 lane highways that connect Varanasi to neighbouring cities. He also highlights additional scheme - Rs 180 crore to lay out sewer lines and clear water-logging, Rs 89 crore to clear roads and lanes approaching 25 places of heritage, Rs 921 crore for underground electric cables; modernisation of small railway stations to reduce the crowds at the main Varanasi cantonment station.
But citizens remain skeptical. Som, a shopkeeper in the Vishwanath lane, next to the iconic Dasaswamedh Ghat, says, “Sarkar means schemes. Let us see what happens on the ground and how it changes our lives.”
There is also buzz about how a new DM is effective and has been trying to instil a sense of order. But this is followed by quick murmurs about how long he would last.
Kapur says the change will only happen with political will. But making urban transformation a central plank in UP’s elections is a distant proposition. As a Varanasi politician said, “Caste and religion matter; Money and organisation matter. Neither politicians nor citizens are ready to make sacrifices necessary for this city to change. Don’t expect 2017 to be any different.”