Would you like an apartment in a Burj Khalifa-inspired skyscraper that overlooks the polluted and almost-dry Yamuna river?

NOTE: The writer is a poet and novelist with a soft spot (sic!) for political and social reporting.

Vrindavan means forest—it brings to mind a green landscape where gopis roamed, cattle grazed and Krishna performed his leelas. Today, not only have the forests vanished, the city’s architectural heritage too stands threatened. The 48 ghats of Vrindavan, built by Raja Himmat Bahadur 600 years ago in the classical Braj-Rajasthani tradition on the Yamuna river front, are under siege from the Uttar Pradesh (U.P.) government and a slew of builders. Given the size of the onslaught, the future of these ghats and their unique Braj culture seems precarious.

Rather than work with conservationists and architects to restore and preserve the unique heritage, the U.P. government under Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav proposes to demolish the old structures and build a new set of cement ghats. If that weren’t bad enough, the State government has also come up with a proposal to build an interceptor canal to carry the sewage of the neighbouring city of Kosi Kalan and dump it into the Yamuna at Vrindavan. 

A menacing presence of earthmovers on the Yamuna waterfront.
A menacing presence of earthmovers on the Yamuna waterfront. © Friends of Vrindavan

We need to go back a few years to understand how the civic authorities came up with such an unholy plan. The real estate boom in the last decade triggered a mushrooming of construction in Vrindavan. Clueless about the right way to get rid of construction debris, the municipal corporation allowed it to be dumped along the Yamuna river front. This continued unchecked for several years despite opposition from the public and from religious and ecological voices. Several ghats literally disappeared under mounds of debris. The Parikrama Marg, which pilgrims use to walk from one temple to another, also vanished.

Concerned Brijvasis got together to form a Braj Vrindavan Heritage Alliance (BVHA), under the chairmanship of Acharya Naresh Narain, to oppose the wanton destruction. “The old ghats are made of stone with excellent architecture and exquisite filigree work. Instead of restoring them, the government wants to build a row of cemented ghats, and ₹180 crore has already been sanctioned for the project called the ‘Beautification of Yamuna River Front’,” said Narain.

Stay order stays

The project flouts the Ministry of Environment and Forests’ rule book, which has clearly laid down that “no new structures can come up within 200 metres of the river bank on either side”. When members of the BVHA moved the Allahabad High Court, they succeeded in getting a stay last year, which was contested. This week, the National Green Tribunal refused to vacate the stay. This is a silver lining, but the battle is not over. An NGO called Dharam Raksha Sangh (whose members allegedly own land along the Yamuna) has filed two petitions insisting that these new ghats be permitted as they can be a major tourist attraction.


But ASI helpless

Lawyer Sanjay Ballabh Gautam, whose family has for generations been performing aarti at the Vihar Ghat, decided to show that it is possible to clear the ghats of building waste and restore them to their original glory. “For the last one year I have employed two labourers who remove the mud dumped on the steps and chabutras of these ghats. As you can see we have succeeded to a very large extent. We want to show this to the government and to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI),” said Gautam, who has spent around Rs. 5 lakh on the effort.

The problem is that ASI has no jurisdiction over the maintenance of these ghats. The ASI gazette notifies only four temples as protected monuments: the Madan Mohan temple, the Govinddeb temple, the Jugal Kishore temple and the Radha Ballab temple.

BVHA’s efforts to protect the city have raised the hackles of the land mafia. Sharandas Shukla, a petitioner fighting the case before the National Green Tribunal in New Delhi, cites how the land mafia has gotten together to file as many as 250 affidavits against BVHA in the Allahabad High Court.

The real estate lobby’s many astonishing plans include building the world’s tallest skyscraper and tallest temple on the banks of the Yamuna. “They want to build a skyscraper like the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The fact that the river has no water and that the riverbank is no place to build this tower means nothing to them and they are going ahead with government support,” said Chowdhury