Modi’s Ganga sutra and the politics of Varanasi

River pollution and sewage are top of the agenda for all parties, but Latha Jishnu who spent several days on the campaign trail in Varanasi is sceptical if they can clean up the Ganga or the holy city

By Latha Jishnu
Published: Monday 12 May 2014

Cremation ghat at Varanasi. Around 32,000 bodies are cremated on the ghats, and many a time half burnt bodies are thrown into the river (photos by Latha Jishnu)

Ma Ganga aur Benares se mera rishta purana hai (My link with Mother Ganga and Benares is old), Narendra Modi proclaims to Varanasi from his lofty vantage points in India’s holiest city. The BJP’s prime ministerial hopeful appears to be frowning in these massive hoardings as he looks down at a city that he, like every outsider, cannot but be baffled by. Modi’s brow is puckered, his left hand upturned in a gesture of puzzlement.

That’s, perhaps, understandable. Anyone visiting this ancient centre of Hindu culture and one of the world's oldest living cities cannot but be taken aback by the sights and smells of Benares as the residents prefer to call it. Officially, it is Varanasi and Constituency no. 77 in the 16th Lok Sabha elections, the arena of a gladiatorial contest where the country’s most formidable political leader, the BJP’s Modi, is taking on 41 other contenders. It is here that the BJP leader has staked his prestige and power, pushing aside the party’s sitting MP, Murali Manohar Joshi, in a strategy that was aimed to consolidate the Hindu vote.

Modi and the BJP have come up with an inspired line to woo the Benarasis. At the spectacular road show that the party organised for the leader’s nomination, Modi had said: "After coming here, I felt neither BJP has sent me nor I have come here on my own. I am here because Mother Ganga has called me. I am like a small boy coming to the mother’s lap.”

Chamaru, one of the eternal boatmen on the Ganga, whom I hire from Assi ghat, is crushing in his reaction. “Ganga Maiya calls everyone. The living, the dying and the dead. Also, gore log (foreigners), neta log, mantri, and visitors like you.” This is uttered with latent meaning. The seasoned boatman has sized me up and says with a hint of mockery, “I think you are one of those who will not bathe in the Ganga. You will say the water is dirty, no?”
How could I gainsay it? From the terrace of my hotel on Assi ghat the view is soothing. The Ganga flows peacefully, its currents carrying meditative boats that are etched against the setting sun. But this is transient happiness. If I look to the side, the Varanasi of dilapidated buildings and garbage mounds assaults one’s senses all over again.

You can get up as early 5 am hoping to commune quietly with the legendary river. But it’s always a hope belied.  Even at that hour, the living and the dead are fighting for space in India’s holiest river, fouling it in indescribable ways. At Manikarnika ghat where much of the cremations take place the fires never go out, day or night. Logs, segregated for quality, are stacked in grim piles, while forlorn relatives make their way through dense heaps of rotting flowers and food that packs of stray dogs are pulling at.

A boat goes past with a long white package with a few marigolds on it balanced on the prow. Gliding past us, the boat stops for a moment and there is a splash as the body weighed down with a stone is thrown into the water. Chamaru tries to assuage my shock by saying this is routine. “Quite often you will find half-burned bodies thrown from the ghats floating nearby.”


Modi’s solution is to create state-of-the-art tourist and infrastructure facilities for Varanasi which he plans to make a world heritage site. In a blog written just before he filed his nomination, the thrice Gujarat chief minister harked back to the model he knows best: the Sabarmati waterfront project for which water is drawn from another river, the Narmada.

“When I took over as CM in 2001, the condition of Sabarmati was similar. Switch to 2014 and things are very different! We have brought water from the Narmada and now water flows through the Sabarmati. A world class Sabarmati River Front was created, which has emerged as a popular recreation and cultural spot in Ahmedabad... this is what we intend to replicate in Varanasi.”

It’s a scheme in which the focus appears to be cleaning the waterfront, a project in which an increased tourist inflow is pivotal. “Once we are able to give the required impetus to tourism, it will not only bring more tourists but also enhance the livelihood of the poorest of the poor. More tourists mean more income for those associated with temples, those who are living on the ghats, those who ride the ferries on the Ganga…the entire town and surrounding areas will receive a much needed facelift.”

How Modi would deal with the daily reality of Benares is not clear.

Cruising along a five-km arc of the Ganga with its cheek-by- jowl bathing and cremation ghats, temples and fortresses, I see giant sewage pipes spewing slimy green filth into the Ganga not far from where people were soaping themselves vigorously or praying immersed in the waters, their rapt faces turned towards the rising sun. Faith trumps everything in Benares, even the sludge and the stench. The dead it would seem are better off.

Giant sewage pipes spew slimy green filth into the Ganga not far from where people soap themselves vigorously or pray immersed in the waters

According to an interview given recently by B D Tripathi, member of National Ganga River Basin Authority, around 32,000 bodies are cremated on the ghats, resulting in 300 tonnes of ash. Worse, 200 tonnes of half-burnt human flesh pollutes the river. Besides, over 3,000 bodies were found floating in the river in a recent survey.

Then there is the sewerage. The current estimate is that 300-350 million litres of sewage is dumped daily into the river. The problem is the city’s sewage treatment plants can treat only 100 million litres and even that in haphazard way since they use obsolete technology. To the pilgrims, to the boatmen to the dhobis who colonise a sprawling section of the ghats, it makes no difference. Life goes on as it has always. “Sadiyon se aise chal raha hai (It’s been thus for centuries),”says Baba Bholanath who sits with his pet monkey and a tray of rudrakashas and trinkets that he peddles to tourists.

As he rows me for three hours along the ghats and lists the special features of each, Chamaru points to a couple of boats that are flying the BJP flag and a plastic portrait of Modi pinned to the mast. “Many people are excited that Modi has come to Kashi. There is a lot of noise about it. Modi has not come to bathe here or to meet ordinary people, he complains.”

On the other hand, Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Admi Party (AAP), has bathed here a couple of times, he informs me. “He is a good man who is concerned about the poor people like weavers and us boatmen.” But Chamaru is non-committal whether he will support either Modi or Kejriwal, whether he thinks the Congress, the BJP or AAP will be the saviours of his ancestral city. Towards the end when he does make his politics clear it comes as a surprise. He confesses that Phoolan Devi, the dacoit queen who made it to Parliament is his hero. (The Samajwadi Party MP was shot dead outside her house in New Delhi in 2001). The reason is simple: Chamaru is a kewat, the caste of boatmen to which Phoolan Devi, a mallah, also belonged. Beneath the ebb and flow of the Ganga, caste continues to be a binding factor, specially at election time.

But Modi has promised to clean up the Ganga and Varanasi, and he might even become Prime Minister, I say.“Maybe. But will it make any difference?” he asks sceptically. “For 30-40 years they have been trying to clean the Ganga but nothing has changed. They say Rs 1 lakh crore has come for the Ganga Action Plan [even boatmen reel off the name of this project with practised ease] but it has been eaten up by netas and babus.” How does he know all this, does he read newspapers? To which he replies with amusement: “I never went to school but these things are discussed on the ghats and in the teashops.”

Across Varanasi, gutters overflow with plastic and garbage

With an uplifted oar Chamaru demarcates one section of the waterfront as Kashi. This is the oldest part, he proclaims with assurance; Benares and Varanasi came much later. Kashi as it was known in ancient times, was one of 16 great Indian kingdoms that ancient Buddhist texts from the first millennium BC talk of, and was a centre of flourishing commerce. In Sanskrit, Kashi means shining, or luminous and, very likely it was a city of light and enlightenment a couple of thousand years ago. Today, the buildings are crumbling, the roads piled with rubble and heaps of garbage. From gutters, flowing or choked, the garbage is collected and piled neatly on the road—there is hardly any pavement in the city—every two feet, tripping up unwary pedestrians. Hours later, these are collected manually and carted away—all to be dumped into the unfortunate river. 


On another trip down the river, a chattier boatman, Kedarnath Nishad, points to a figure among a group of early morning bathers and identifies him as the son of the famous mahant (chief priest) of the Sankat Mochan temple, Veer Bhadra Mishra. The elder Mishra, a retired professor of hydraulic engineering from Benares Hindu University’s Institute of Technology, devoted his energies to the Swacha Ganga (Clean Ganga) campaign which he started in the 1980s.

Boatman Kedarnath Nishad

“With all his devotion, his single-minded dedication to the cause of the Ganga, Prof Veer Bhadra Mishra could not make a dent on the problem,” says Akhilesh Upadhyaya, undergrad student of sociology at a city college who is having an early breakfast. “But I doubt if he [Modi] can solve this problem unless he stays full time here. The pollution of the Ganga is getting worse instead of better.”
The mahant, who passed away in March 2013, was honoured internationally, one of the awards coming  from the UN Environment Programme which in 1992 put him on its Global 500 Roll of Honour. “But after dedication and spending several million dollars—the figure is actually closer to a billion dollars—what happened?” asks Upadhyaya.

Mishra’s son Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, the present mahant, said in a recent interview in the Financial Times of London, that it was he who prompted Modi to take up the Ganga issue at a meeting in his home near Tulsi Ghat in December 2013.

In the nameless eatery where the student and I chat over the kachoris and jalebis that the Benaresis are partial to, there are portraits of both the Congress candidate Ajay Rai, a politician who has been with many parties and has won an Assembly seat in Varanasi, and of Modi. Rai claims to know the city’s problems better than either Modi or Kejriwal whom he dismisses as outsiders.

Rai is scornful of Modi’s plan to develop the banks of Ganges on the lines of the Sabarmati project. He was quoted by PTI as saying:"Modi destroyed areas along Sabarmati by allowing setting up of five-star hotels and other constructions. Is he talking about imposing the Sabarmati model here? It will not be tolerated by people of Varanasi. He will not understand the spiritual significance of Ganga for people here."

And does the upstart AAP’s Kejriwal, a valiant David who challenged the Goliaths of Varanasi and focused the political discourse to “river, sewer and weaver”, understand the problems any better? In an eight-page manifesto prepared after nukkad sabhas (street corner meetings) with the local people, the party promises the following:

  • The Ganga and all its ghats will be cleaned. Plastic will be banned in the city.
  • Varanasi will become the spiritual capital of the world and will get the status of a holy city.
  • It would arrange special economic packages from the Central and state governments to develop the city's infrastructure.

But here, too, the details are missing. How will the Ganga be cleaned?

Sewage, river pollution, garbage. Was Varanasi, the most prestigious political contest in elections to the 16th Lok Sabha, really fought on these issues? Residents believe, no. Arvind Kumar Pande, who runs a taxi service, says ultimately it is all about politics. “The BJP wants to show its power in Uttar Pradesh by winning this seat for their leader. Has it told us exactly how it will restore the ancient glory of Benares and purify our river? They have no answers.”

Close to the famous Kashi Vishwanath Temple, off Maidangin Road, there is another hoarding that asks Kaise hoga desh hamara, jab na hogi Ganga dhara? (What will become of the country without the flowing Ganga?). “Think for the Ganga,” exhorts the billboard put up by partners in the Ganga Action Plan: the Japan International Cooperation Agency(JICA), the Varanasi Nagar Nigam and the Ministry of Environment and Forest. The billboard is at an extraordinary height and hard to decipher. Trying to read it, I narrowly avoid falling into a flowing gutter.

Report: The compliance statement for the order passed by the Hon'ble Tribunal dated 05-02-2014 the details of Grossly Polluting Industries (GPI) operating in 5 Ganga state

Order: Order of the National Green Tribunal regarding 956 polluting industries discharging effluents into the river Ganga and its tributaries, 06/05/2014

Question raised in Lok Sabha: Progress made in regard to cleaning of Ganga river in the country under Ganga Action Plan Phase

Report: Report of the Inter-Ministerial Group on issues relating to river Ganga

Report: Pollution assessment: River Ganga

Report: National Ganga River Basin project: project appraisal document

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