Old Kashi getting a new face
Old Kashi is on the cusp of change. Its quintessence is getting a modern face. And the Varanasi Smart City mission is propelling this move forward for the ancient city. Even so, snapshots of the two facets, the old and the new, co-exist side by side.
At daybreak, one can still see sadhus standing in knee-deep water in the Ganga and taking a holy dip in the river in the city considered holy by Hindus.
Not far from this vignette of Varanasi’s spiritual life, the city’s “busiest” Godowlia crossing now has a multi-storey smart parking facility built at a cost of ₹19 crore. Serpentine lanes in the Dashashwamedh Ghat and five other areas under the Varanasi Municipal Corporation or Varanasi Nagar Nigam have been repaired with square, plain cement concrete tiles and beautified as part of the Varanasi Smart City mission. Soothing paintings with religious themes adorn the walls of these lanes.
The iconic ghats have smart heritage signage. Landscaping has been done near overhead tanks. A smart school has been built in the Machhodari area at an estimated cost of ₹19 crore. It is equipped with smart classrooms for children, playing area and skill development centre. Potable water supply pipelines are being renewed in six municipal ward areas. The Smart City mission has also given a facelift to parks.
The change has come about in the last six years under the Varanasi Smart City project.
Varanasi is one of the 100 cities being equipped with smart facilities under Smart Cities Mission (SCM) launched by the BJP government at the Centre in 2015.
Varanasi Smart City Limited was formed to carry forward the mission in Kashi. It came up with 15 projects, including a project for the redevelopment of old Kashi, construction of the government composite school (primary and upper primary combined) in Machhodari, development of smart parking, beautification of parks and overhead tanks, preservation, repairing and beautification of lanes of Kashi, said Shakambhari Nandan Sonthalia, public relations officer, Varanasi Smart City.
Sonthalia said a survey identified the areas in which developmental works was needed on priority. The survey revealed that sewer lines and water supply pipelines were very old in Varanasi’s old city areas, including Dashashwamedh Ghat, Kaal Bhairav ward, Rajmandir Ghat, Jangamwadi ward, Kameshwar Mahadev ward and Gharwasi Tola ward.
Both the water supply line and sewage system were laid in 1932 as per the records. They were in a dilapidated state. The old water pipelines were replaced with new ones and the sewer system was being renewed. Over 60% work in these VMC area wards has been completed and the remaining is 40% likely to be completed by November.
Equipping the iconic ghats of Varanasi with smart heritage signage involved an expenditure of about ₹5 crore.
Made of COR-TEN (weathering) steel, signage with an introductory note has been set up at each ghat. Sculptures have also been installed at some ghats, including Assi Ghat.
Giant LED screens have been installed at six locations, including Assi Ghat, Dashashwamedh Ghat, Rajendra Prasad Ghat, Raj Ghat, Godowlia and Varanasi Cantt station, said Sonthalia. He added that live streaming of Kashi Vishwanath temple and Ganga aarti was done daily on these screens for the devotees.
The multi-level smart parking facility (ground and four floors) near the Godowlia intersection has come up at a cost of about ₹19 crore.
This crossing is the busiest one in Varanasi and it connects Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Ganga ghats and other important landmarks. Equipped with hydraulics and queuing area, it has the capacity to accommodate 375 two- wheelers. Smart parking at the Town Hall will be ready in October, said Sonthalia.
Besides, an underground parking facility with a capacity for 470 cars and 130 two- wheelers has come up at Benia Bagh Park.
Varanasi Smart City, which built the parking facility, is beautifying the park and landscaping is underway there. It will also have a football ground, amusement area, open gym, yoga garden and other facilities. This entire project is worth about ₹90.42 crore.
Likewise, the Khidkiya Ghat has been redeveloped and it is being equipped with a tourist facility centre, ticket booth, cafeteria, kids’ play zone, wall art and murals, selfie point, yoga and meditation space. This would be divyang friendly. A CNG filling station has already come up at the ghat.
In addition, a concrete road is being built between Maidagin and Godowlia under the area based development road project worth ₹86 crore. So far, 200 boats have already been converted into CNG-operated ones and the remaining 1000 will also be converted into CNG operated vessels by November.
The work is underway to install surveillance cameras at 720 locations and 25 of them will be advance facial recognition surveillance cameras. Camera installation work has also begun, and it is likely to be completed by end of this year, said Sonthalia.
The advance cameras to be installed at Godowlia, BHU gate and several other important places will be connected to the Kashi Integrated Command and Control Centre. As soon as any person breaches the speed limit or is found not wearing helmet or a bike has three riders, the camera will capture the vehicle number and send an alert. Similarly, these cameras will record the footage of the crowded and important places. Once the cameras are installed, the entire security system will be smart, said Sontholia.
D Vasudevan, general manager of Varanasi Smart City Ltd, said, “While trying to preserve the heritage, cultural and religious characteristics of the ancient city of Kashi, Varanasi smart city is adding to various facilities to the city by using information technology, modern trends like artificial intelligence to enhance the safety, security, quality of life and livability of the citizens.”
But not everyone is satisfied. Shailendra Singh, a resident of the Cantt area, is one such local questioning the smart facilities.
“Where are the smart facilities? I couldn’t find even one. In the city, roads like Chauka Ghat-Hukulganj, Pandeypur-Panchkoshi are damaged at various stretches. Several lanes in Assi area and some other localities are rough and uneven,” Singh said. Manoj Yadav Golu, a resident of Sikraul area, said, “Lanes are being beautified in six wards only. There are 90 wards in the Varanasi Nagar Nigam area. What about the 84 other wards?” Yadav said the sewage system of the city was so poor that streets were waterlogged during the first rain of the monsoon. On the other hand, Vijay Yadav, a resident of Pandeypur area, said he was satisfied with the development works in the city.
“Overhead tanks, lanes, walls, and streets have been repaired and beautified. It will take time to make every facility smart,” he said.