Close to 300 houses — 187 already demolished and 90 waiting to be razed — are making way for the Vishwanath Precinct Development Project
A strip of land — measuring 43,636 sq m — between the 18th century shrine and the River Ganga — is being cleared of all construction, many perhaps as old as the temple itself, so that pilgrims have an easier access through a wide and beautified corridor that has been planned under the Kashi Vishwanath Precinct Development Project.
The project is being executed by Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple Trust, under the Uttar Pradesh government, but the driving force behind it is thought to be Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who represents Varanasi (or Banaras) in Parliament.
Since the project affects only those living in the 43,636 sq m of land connecting the temple to the river, opinion is divided on the irrevocable damage that has been caused by it. Many in the city, especially admirers of Mr. Modi, hail the move, saying it has rid the temple area of encroachments. According to them, the rightful owners were, in any case, not living in these buildings, which were occupied mostly by tenants paying a measly rent. Further, the emergence of old temples from many of the demolished structures has further strengthened their argument — and that of the government — that they had been constructed illegally over temples and that it was about time they were removed.
“Change is always turbulent,” says Vishal Singh, the young bureaucrat who, as the CEO of the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple Trust, is executing the project with an iron hand, “but if you tell me change can’t happen, I won’t buy that.”
So exactly whose brainchild is the project? “It would be very difficult for me to pinpoint,” says Mr. Singh. “All I can tell you is that the plan was conceived in 2007. I would even say that the idea dates back to 1916 when Mahatma Gandhi visited the temple and was appalled by the filth and congestion around it. [Mr. Modi] has only provided a fillip to the project.”