Dams · Ganga

Varanasi, God’s Own Land

Guest Blog by Nandini Oza

My recent visit to Varanasi in March 2017 was with a lot of expectations for more than one reason. Varanasi is situated on the majestic Ganga and located between the two rivers Varuna and Asi with Gomti – Ganga sangam (confluence) not far away. Naturally Varanasi would be of interest to any person interested in rivers and water. The Government has also announced the ambitious Namami Gange program which is essentially a national mission for cleaning of the river Ganga. The Government has also declared building of waterways through more than hundred rivers across the country and all the three rivers of Varanasi, the Ganga, Varuna and Asi are a part of this project. Besides, Varanasi being Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi’s constituency for three years now, he takes personal interest in its development through several programmes like Swatch Bharat Abhiyan, Namami Gange and so on.  This visit was therefore to familiarise myself with the ground situation, issues and recent developments and I share my impressions here. I also share some of the discussions I had with local groups and individuals of the holy city of Banaras.

  1. Varanasi’s current development model: Since Varanasi is Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi’s constituency, the plan and talk doing the rounds is to transform Varanasi into Kyoto! There was also a competition till very recently between then Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and PM Modi in the makeover of the city through construction overdrive. In Varanasi, broadening of roads, construction of flyovers, construction of channels, cementing of river banks, building of Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) all of this seems to be happening at the same time. As per the local groups all of this is being done in a haphazard manner. We ourselves could see dug up roads, half complete elevated roads, half built flyovers, demolition of part of the houses for broadening of airport to city road, cementing of river banks, an under-construction port, under construction STPs and so on. The members of the local groups we met are afraid that this unplanned construction overdrive will completely ruin the city as well as the culture of Varanasi. It is a joke among the local people that Kyoto to ho nahi sakta aur Banaras bhi rahega nahi! This is because Banaras/Kashi with its unique features is essentially different from Kyoto though it may have a few similarities.

One among many such construction plans was to build a deck/jetty right inside the Ganga opposite one of the popular ghats named Dasshasvamegh where the famous aarti of the river Ganga is performed daily. Currently the tourists watch the aarti from the steps of the ghat or through boat rides. The deck is ready to be installed but due to protests by boat people along with the local groups, the Government has not been able to install the deck/jetty inside the Ganga as of now. It is said that such decks/jetties are to be constructed on other ghats too. 

Another new trend is handing over of the famous Ganga ghats of Varanasi for adoption to different corporate houses on the pretext of maintaining them. As a result many small vendors are being removed from the ghats on the pretext of cleaning them up. 

There are over eighty ghats on the banks of the river Ganga in Varanasi and currently hundreds of traditional boatmen and small vendors earn their livelihood here by catering to tourists flocking from all over the country and the world to this holy city.  Both, the boat people and the small vendors who are an integral part of the Varanasi culture are under threat of displacement and losing their livelihood not only due to the construction drive in the city and the banks of the rivers but also because of the fear of handing over of the ghats to corporate houses. 

Small boatmen own such boats in Varanasi for their livelihood. Photo Wikipedia
Small boatmen own such boats in Varanasi for their livelihood. Photo: WikipediaSmall vendors doing business on Ghats. Photo- Jinda SandbhorRight now, small vendors do business on the Varanasi Ghats. Photo: Jinda Sandbhor. Date- 28-March-2017
  1. Varuna and Asi, two tributaries of the Ganga and Government’s Namami Gange Mission: Varanasi gets its name from the two tributaries Varuna and Asi. However both the rivers are highly polluted and are currently only nallahs carrying the city sewerage. Asi has also been encroached upon in a big way. While huge amounts of funds are coming into Varanasi for turning Varuna on the lines of Sabarmati river front[i]and some work is going on in cementing its banks, there is no idea as to where the river is going to get its water from. Currently it is carrying only Varanasi’s sewage.

Besides, cementing of river banks is also not a good idea as river banks are integral parts of the rivers and their ecosystems, and are often used for growing of various things including flowers, fruits, etc.

Flowers cultivated on the banks of Gomti. Photo- Jinda Sandbhor
Flowers cultivated on the banks of Gomti. Photo- Jinda Sandbhor

As per the local groups the BJP Government is channelizing huge amounts of money mostly through NGOs close to BJP/RSS in the name of Namami Gange. However it is reported that it is not being used productively. 

Interestingly both Varuna and Asi rivers are also part of the waterways planned by the Government though there is hardly any water, nor any “way” due to the encroachments in Asi river in particular. 

As of now, both Varuna and Asi are in pitiable state. The Ganga itself is terribly polluted with sewage and drains directly opening into the river. Besides, the massive construction drive in Varanasi is likely to pollute the rivers further as there is lack of proper garbage collection and disposal system in place. 

Varuna river's banks being cemented. Photo- Jinda Sandbhor
Varuna’s banks being built/constructed with cement. Photo: Jinda Sandbor. Date 28-March-17
Encroached river Asi with garbage dumps. Photo-Jinda Sandbhor
Encroached Asi river and garbage dumps on its bank. Photo: Jinda Sandbhor Date- 28-March-17
Asi with garbage, sewage and encroachemnt. Photo- Jinda Sandbhor
Encroached Asi river and garbage dumps on its bank. Photo: Jinda Sandbhor Date- 28-March-17
Sewage meeting the Ganga directly at one of the Ghats at Varanasi. Photo- Nandini Oza
Sewage meeting the Ganga directly at one of the Ghats at Varanasi. Photo: Nandini Oza. Date 28-March-17
Harishchandra Ghat, one of the two cremation Ghats. Photo - Nandini Oza
Harishchandra Ghat, one of the two cremation ghats in Varanasi. Photo: Nandini Oza. Date- 28-March-17
  1. Sewerage Treatment Plants: New STPs are under construction to treat the sewerage of the city. However there has been a problem of getting lands from farmers for construction of new STPs as these are rich fertile agricultural lands of the Ganga belt. The farmers grow flowers, fruits and vegetables and the women are involved in making and selling pickles, murraba, etc out of the fruits that grow here as part of cottage industry.

The plan is to lift all the sewage that is flowing right now into the Ganga, Varuna and Asi Rivers for treatment to STPs. But a retired IIT professor of river engineering and a river hydrology engineer himself, Professor. U.K Chaudhary, while talking on Namami Gange mission told us that the STPs are not likely to help clean the river and it is only an eye wash. He gave many reasons for the same, one being that at STPs only organic waste is treated. According to him decentralised soak pits are required and should be made mandatory but no attention is being paid on that front.He also told us that Namami Gange mission is not going to succeed in spite of huge funds being allocated because most of the water of the Ganga has already been diverted upstream of Varanasi through barrages and dams. 

We visited one operational STP ourselves but the local people told us that this plant is not functioning well and the sewage is not lifted from the nallahs to bring to the STP but allowed to flow into the river at night.The processed waters from this STP are supposed to be used for irrigation but an officer at the STP told us that the farmers are not lifting it and most of the water goes back into the river. 

Some work of cleaning the Ganga like sweeping and washing of the ghats and a mechanism to clear solid waste dumped in the Ganga directly is going on but the rivers are highly polluted. The local people told us that the solid waste collected from the ghats and the Ganga is either dumped on the opposite bank or a little far away as there is no proper system of waste collection and disposal.  As of now many of the drains of Varanasi are being emptied directly into the rivers- Asi, Varuna and the Ganga. 

  1. Swatch Bharat Abhiyan: Swatch Bharat Abhiyan funds too are being routed through several NGOs and these funds also are not being used in a proper way, we were told. Varanasi city itself is terribly dirty with garbage dumps everywhere and stray cows and bulls all over the city. Although sweepers have been employed at different places, they are on contractual basis with low salary. There is no proper system of garbage collection and disposal for the city as of now. Most of the garbage is therefore dumped here and there or burnt compounding the problem of air pollution. The condition of Swatch Bharat Abhiyan is evident from the photos here.
Garbage in Varanasi. Photo - Nandini Oza
Garbage in Varanasi. Photo: Nandini Oza. Date- 28-March-17
street of banaras
Streets of Varanasi. Photo: Nandini Oza. Date 28-March-17
  1. Water ways: Ganga as a waterway is under the plan of the Government which would involve dredging, desilting, building of ports, etc, which entails huge infrastructure and use of large machines causing a lot of adverse impacts on the river and its people, but without any credible impact assessment or public consultations. As part of this project a port is already under construction on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi. About half of the funds for Ganga waterway are coming from the World Bank. The port, along with the waterways would have large adverse impacts on the river including on a turtle sanctuary close by.

The engineer at the site told us that thousands of tons of stones have already been dumped for the pitching work of the port. The stones/boulders are brought from quarries nearby. These stone quarries have been causing severe environment impacts already.

A senior professor we met at Banaras Hindu University told us that the water way planned on the rivers Ganga, Asi and Varuna are not going to succeed for multiple reasons. He said that the Ganga waterway will not be financially viable. Those planned in Asi and Varuna are not feasible as these rivers have no water. Some of the photos here give an idea of the work in progress on the port on the banks of the holy Ganga at Varanasi. 

World Bank supported port under construction on Ganga in Banaras. Photo- Nandini Oza
World Bank supported port under construction on Ganga in Banaras. Photo: Nandini Oza Date- 28-March-17
Port under construction on banks of Ganga at Varanasi. Photo - Nandini Oza
World Bank supported port under construction on Ganga in Banaras. Photo: Nandini Oza Date- 28-March-17

6. Air pollution: Members of an organisation care4air working on the issues of air pollution in the city told us that the air pollution of Varanasi has reached alarming levels. Anyone visiting the city will feel the poor air quality, we ourselves could feel. The problem is compounded by the fact that the city is in a continuous construction and destruction mode. Due to lack of planning once a road is laid, it is dug up again as the cables are to be laid and then said to be dug up again as underground drainage is to be laid.

Summing up, much of the large scale construction works now underway in Varanasi seem unplanned. This is likely to not only change the culture of Varanasi but is also adversely affecting the small and marginal traders, vendors, boat people, fisher people and so also the environment and rivers. There did not seem any fundamental change under Swatch Bharat Abhiyan or Namami Gange Mission. The waterways planned in all the rivers of Varanasi are going to affect the people, the environment, the historical and religious city of Varanasi as well as its rivers including the holy Ganga itself. However the encouraging point is that many of the civil society groups, students unions at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), retired and current professors at the BHU, etc have come together and have formed an umbrella organisation named Sajhja Sanskrutik Manch and have been raising many of these issues of Varanasi collectively along with the small vendors, boat people and the marginalised.

                Nandini Oza, 7-April-2017 (nandinikoza@gmail.com)


[i] Sabarmati river front in Ahmedabad gets its waters from the Narmada Project Canal which has been diverted to the otherwise dry Sabarmati. Sabarmati’s waters have been diverted upstream and through dams such as Dharoi.

3 thoughts on “Varanasi, God’s Own Land

  1. who will pollute ? we the people those who worship only do the harm, we are creating problem we are abusing govt may come govt may o people mentality is selfish, not to care about the environment 7save the earth.


  2. your views on city is accurate, but remedies aren’t. Quoting professors doesn’t necessarily mean they are to be taken at face value, most of them have biased views based on their field of study/research. varanasi has capacity to hold 5 lakh people, but it has 30 lakh people. I think your solutions are applicable to a city of 5 lakh people. Considering massive population city needs to be expanded with massive infrastructure spend. New jobs need to be created. And we cannot keep relying on small vendors and farmers. Times are changing so should people.


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