IN GOD’S OWN CITY (I)

Well, that is Varanasi for me.

But during this trip back home, the first expression that came to my mind, while mapping its roads, is that the city should ban four-wheelers and other medium sized vehicles from most of its roads – especially in the second half of the day.

It took me an hour to reach the Ganga’s Rajendra Prasad Ghat from Nai Sadak, a stretch that is some one kilometer long. Places lying in between, Nai Sadak, Dalmandi, Godowlia, all are marketplaces now. And these marketplaces, connected by an ‘insufficiently wide road’, are inundated with shops and street vendors.

And that ‘insufficiently wide road’ is flooded with encroachments – by regular shops – by roadside vendors – by auto-rickshaw drivers – by rickshaw-pullers (and the new addition is Delhi’s ubiquitous battery driven e-rickshaws). People park their vehicles as per their own convenience even if it means hurt-burn for others. In fact, the stretch from main Godowlia crossing to Rajendra Parasd Ghat (or Dashashwamedh Ghat) has a thick divider made of illegally parked two-wheelers (as four-wheelers are not allowed) in the middle of the road.

And Varanasi’s every road busy road has a similar grievance to tell – a grievance that is never heard.

So, while feelings the pangs of moving continuously clutch, brake and accelerator my two-wheeler, the thought came to my mind spontaneously. Yes, it means a lot of noise from many of its ‘responsible’ residents, but they need to pay this price to maintain the city’s heritage with needs of changing times.

The problem of Varanasi roads is exacerbated by their poor upkeep.

Varanasi or Banaras is also notorious as a dirty city with loads of dust and garbage afflicting every part of it. Their prevalence is a telling sign of the administrative apathy the city has been subjected to for decades.

I decided to map some of its main road stretches – from Cantt Railway Station to Banaras Hindu University through Sigra and Bhelupur – from Lahartara to Banaras Hindu University through Manduadih and Sundarpur – from Rathyatra crossing to Dashashwamedh Ghat – from Lahurabir to Dashashwamedh Ghat through Nai Sadak – from Lahurabir to Dashashwamedh Ghat through Maidagin and Chowk – and from Banaras Hindu University to Godowlia through Assi and Sonarpura.

And except on the stretch from Lahartara to Banaras Hindu University through Manduadih and Sundarpur, the experience on every other road was like living a nightmare of being trapped in a traffic hell – coupled with potholed roads and air laden with dust particles.

What I experienced on these roads in last four days, its residents feel it daily. And since they are also responsible for it, we can safely say that many of them, the city residents, have this cycle of exploitation (exploiting someone or being exploited by someone) as part of their daily life now. A ride through these stretches (or in fact through most of the roads of the city) gives a feeling that the whole system governing them has collapsed here.

If Varanasi is still God’s Own City, it is because of its ancient spiritual legacy weaved around Shiva, the Ganga and death. Its spiritual and religious mysticisms draw people from all over the world. If Varanasi is still God’s Own City, it is because of its ageless culture weaved around its simple people. (Yes, exceptions are always there, but then, they are exceptions. Isn’t it?)

Varanasi is also famous for its streets and alleys and is loved for people always thronging them. Varanasi’s crowd, in its lanes, on its roads, is a big draw for many.

But we need to differentiate ‘this’ crowd from the crowds on its various roads that make even walking a difficult proposition. People would, naturally, hate this crowd and it is earning a bad name for the city.

The city is in dire need of good roads and their professional maintenance. And the city is in dire need of decongesting its roads – expecially the ones mentioned above – and any road that crisscrosses its older parts. Banning four-wheelers, say from 4 PM, would be the step in that direction that the administration needs to take, sooner or later.

The Day..Collage-3

©/IPR: Santosh Chaubey – https://santoshchaubey.wordpress.com/

VARANASI: GOOD DAYS NOT YET HERE BUT THE BANARASI SPIRIT SAYS THE DAY WILL COME

I come from a city that is ‘twice older that history, tradition and legend all combined’, in the words of Mark Twain.

Yes, I come from Varanasi.

Varanasi’s that ‘oldness’, something that the American writer was trying to express, is an eternal benchmark of the city, its hallmark – but with changing times, has become a time-specific sore point as well.

Because of the people who are supposed to manage its affairs. They exploit the city’s antiquity but have deliberately left it devoid of an imperative modernity.

Any Banarasi is proud of its history, tradition, culture and existentialist ethos. And I am a proud Baranasi.

But a realist one. The city is a living mess now, pushed to a civilizational oblivion by its policymakers, the officials of the state government.

Its fame as being the spiritual-religious capital of India and one of the oldest living citadels of the Indian civilization has failed to catch up with the needs of the changing times.

And when I say of ‘the needs of the changing times’, it’s not about its society or its spiritual-religious of cultural heritage or its academic legacy, it’s about its crumbling infrastructure. The unorganized growth has not yet met its balancing ‘organized growth’ counterpart. It has failed so far in any of its effort, efforts that are all half-baked.

Often, the shabby state of affairs create interesting anomalies to pause, to look at, to stare at, to think, to muse, to feel bad, to feel satirical, to get irritated, to feel pushed to express, or to laugh it off with a frustrated smile.

Varanasi is, technically, a metro city now for many years and the basic civic amenities that should be for a metro city that is also a global tourism attraction – piped water, piped gas, 24-hour electricity, a proper city transport, an efficient administration for health and educational facilities, a modern airport – these basic requirements are a far cry for the city that is one of the major contributors to India’s tourism earning; a city that is educational, spiritual and cultural hub; a city that is one of the very few places in the world having seen the shades of human civilization since the human civilization began.

The city is crumbling under the pressure of administrative and political apathy that has pushed the city’s infrastructure to the ignominy of being a Ganga city where the water of the Holy River is not fit for the Holy Dip.

That is why Varanasi vote en-masse for Narendra Modi because they saw in him the best chance for the city’s revival to emerge as the heritage capital of India – an aesthetic blend of religion, spirituality, culture, tradition, antiquity and modernity. Throughout his campaign, Modi pushed for an extensive vision of making Varanasi a world class city, that we believed the country’s prime-minister and the development-oriented administrator will deliver to us.

My last Varanasi visit this March was after a long time, some 20 months. I was tied up here and there and missed the city I grew up in.

So, when I went there this time, after 10 months of it electing Narendra Modi, I tried to assess the mood in my conversations with the people, from different walks of life, from academicians to administrators, from ghat-dwellers to people living nearby its airport outside the city’s urban limits, from students to rickshaw-pullers and so on.

While my first-hand account didn’t find the situation in line with the huge expectations with which the city voted for Modi, it was in sync with the reality-bound thoughts that Modi needed time to deliver given the decades and administrative and government apathy the city has seen.

Also, a basic need is the change in the mindset of many of the residents who take the city for granted, adding to the garbage dump the city has become synonymous with, giving it bad name.

Though city’s mess is basically due to the insensitivity of the state governments, the city residents have compounded the city’s problems by irresponsible acts. Modi had rightly reminded the city during his first visit as its elected representative that it needed to change its course to get the city cleaned. His ‘paan and spit and stains’ anecdote is a universal problem of Varanasi that sums up how its inhabitants have contributed in giving the city a bad name.

Good days not are yet here – but Modi is still the best hope for the city.

And the Banarasi spirit says – the day will come – till then, we will manage with it – with the ‘travel’ alternatives available.

©/IPR: Santosh Chaubey – https://santoshchaubey.wordpress.com/