The new redevelopment project places the Vishwanath temple at the epicentre. Is it about conserving a heritage city or a political statement?
Prime Minister Modi recently inaugurated Vishwanath Dham, a project to redevelop areas around the Vishwanath temple and provide upgraded amenities to pilgrims. The details are now accessible, and it appears that the project is by far the most extensive attempt to intervene in the urban setting and historical landscape of the city. When completed, it will radically alter the ground and bestow singular importance on Vishwanath temple.
In a multinucleated, labyrinthine and fine-grain city such as Varanasi, the new scale and order imposed by the project has set off fiery debates: some approvingly argue in favour of its decisive strategy to upgrade the place, while some clearly disagree and critique the extensive demolition, loss of historical character, and its potential to change the multicultural nature of the city.
The key to understanding and engaging with the ongoing debate lies in knowing the details of the project, delving into the history of the place, and, importantly, unpacking the government’s shrill political views that undergird the project.
Some of these plans, particularly the Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana scheme of 2016, delineated six heritage precincts, which included the inner city, the Buddhist site at Sarnath, and a weaver’s colony, for regeneration. It proposed 78 small projects including paving the lanes in the inner city, protecting ponds, and select intervention in residential areas. Not much has happened in this case too, and the protection of heritage precincts remains largely on paper.
The biggest disappointment came from the failure to list the old city of Varanasi in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The study by Rana Singh, Professor of Geography at Banaras Hindu University, shows that attempts to nominate structures within the city to the list began in 1989 as a part of the Nehru Centenary celebrations. Since then, many attempts, including the relatively recent effort to nominate the city as a World Heritage City, have failed for lack of participation and political will, and due to bureaucratic hurdles. Had they succeeded, the city may have taken a different course.
The BJP government must know that an island of attention will not be enough to make Varanasi a liveable city. Keeping the Vishwanath temple area shining while all other areas crumble cannot be a solution. Regenerating heritage precincts and making them places worthy of living requires more attention and care than the greenfield areas of the city. For this, the capacity, commitment, and sensitivity of the state have to increase manifold.