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
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

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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  • The daily reality of the

    The daily reality of the Ganga dictates that it needs a Ganga model, not a Sabarmati model to salvage this City of Salvation from its hell on earth. For the faithful this is THE transit point to their life's ultimate journey. Narendra Modi would do well to begin building his model for the Ganga from inside the people's hearts & minds before calling in the builders. As the self professed Son of Maa Ganga the new prime minister is best positioned to bring home the message of a Kashi that begins cleaning up from within so the great river can shine again. And hope it happens before climate change catches up with the glaciers that feed it.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Instead of using a mocking,

    Instead of using a mocking, rather awful tone, the author could merely research how rivers are cleaned today, i.e. if reporters actually still research anything. First sewage anywhere can be made into fertilizer and returned to farms rather than dumped into rivers. Next tackle industrial effluent where scientific methods are already well established. Work with every citizen: ask for volunteers. Teach people to separate all garbage at source into paper, plastic, cardboard, plastic bottles, glass, etc. Each can be recycled by appropriate factories. There are MORE simple solutions which EVERY city can follow, mostly involving minor changes in behavior. No one cares if you like or despise whichever politician. Such articles merely blaze forth your ignorance.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • The article restates what is

    The article restates what is known for a long time. I will look longingly at Ganga in Benaras, until it is finally cleaned up; maybe not in my lifetime.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • I cannot believe that Modi

    I cannot believe that Modi who is a champion of Hindutva and believes in Ganga Ma would propose a Sabarmati waterfront complex at Ganga in Varanasi. One is meant for urban people having amusement with their family and friends. They will walk and eat along the river. But our Ganga is holy for us. It is deeply tied to our culture and traditions. We come to die there. We burn our dead there. Is this a campaign against Modi?


    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Raju, you have put your

    Raju, you have put your finger on the problem. The Ganga is very holy to the Hindus and it is only they who can clean up this great river with its amazing flow of life and death. Politicians can only give a direction to what needs to be done by looking at the larger picture. Here, the solution does not appear to be the Sabarmati model which is all about concrete structures beloved of city planners looking for design awards. In any case, the Sabarmati is a seasonal river and the Ahmedabad project uses the waters of the Narmada for this urban beautification project.

    The bigger problem for the Ganga is whether the water will continue to flow along its 2,500-odd km. The quantum of water has been decreasing continuously and so is the velocity. Apart from the dozens of existing dams and proposed hydroelectric projects on the Ganga, there is also a plan to construct a 30km tunnel which will divert the flow of the river underground. This will only worsen its plight by reducing the absorption of ambient oxygen.

    Politicians who really care about the river need to keep all this in mind and not offer cosmetic changes.

    Posted by: Latha Jishnu | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Do read the comment above and

    Do read the comment above and my response to it. We need more than cosmetic changes to purify the Ganga. If you had gone through the article without preconceived biases it would have been clear that none of the politicians has thought deeply about the GangaÔÇÖs problems. I did not single out anyone in particular in my lament for the holy river. All that you have suggested for keeping the river clean is admirable, indeed. But if an individual sense of ethics and cleanliness was all that was required would we have dirty towns and dirty rivers in the country? The Ganga presents a more complex problem than segregating urban waste and bringing about ÔÇ£minor changes in behaviorÔÇØ as you put it. What is the simple suggestion you have for us Hindus who believe in tradition? What should do we do about our cremation rites? Then, there is the horrendous problem of industries dumping their effluents into rivers. It is something that even the best of our politicians has not been able to tackle. ThatÔÇÖs why Vapi in Gujarat is among the most polluted places.

    Posted by: Latha Jishnu | 4 years ago | Reply
  • I have faithfully reproduced

    I have faithfully reproduced what Mr Modi said and wrote about the Ganga. Mr ModiÔÇÖs comments have been reported widely in the media: on every TV channel and in very newspaper. You could also read his blog ( ) which he wrote just before filing his nomination for the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat on April 24. Embedded in this blogpost is a link to the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project which he speaks of with great pride. HereÔÇÖs what he had to say: ÔÇ£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. With the blessings of Baba Bholenath, this is what we intend to replicate in Varanasi.ÔÇØ

    Posted by: Latha Jishnu | 4 years ago | Reply
  • I agree with the author of

    I agree with the author of the article on Sabarmati and Narmada. I visited this place under a programme of Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on industrial pollution issue. Even in Hyderabad, bureaucrats started telling that they make Musi like Sabarmati. Then I told them with Narmada water the pollution is washed away but there is no such thing with Musi. All the time the filth is there -- out of 2000 MLD of sewage and with the Central government funds STPs were built to clean only around 600 MLD but it is effective half it. In Sabarmati river both treated water from STPs and CETPs are dumped but with the Narmada water they are washed out -- Narmada water is the brain child of congress governments at the Centre and not BJP project. Also, the credit goes to Supreme Court.

    With Ganga River it is impossible to purify unless we change our agriculture system from chemical inputs to organic; we close down all the industries that are releasing polluted water in to the river in the catchment area of the river; treating 100% domestic sewage. This may require one lakh crores to do the job. Even after spending that much money there is no garentee Ganga will be clean. The only solution is "Gangamata must comedown from heaven" to clear the river.

    Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • I believe there's hope in the

    I believe there's hope in the air, if one carefully studies Modi's speech on the banks of the Ganges the other evening. He quoted Mahatma Gandhi to urge Kaashi vaasiyon that cleanliness begins at home. And he spoke of his commitment to Maa Ganga. I'm not a great Modi fan but his speeches since winning the elections gives me hope. And he's known to be a man who does what he says. I have reason to believe he plans to make Ganga one of his priority projects.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Who said that is ALL that is

    Who said that is ALL that is needed? Surely anyone can begin right away, anywhere with small actions while waiting for some big neta to 'do something'?

    To answer only ONE issue: make it a social imperative and easy for Hindus to donate a body. Never mind other communities!

    Make it culturally unacceptable to have kids you cannot care for rather than insisting everyone has at least two. Media can play a role here rather than criticizing.

    My household is garbage free simply because we refuse it at source and collect it in separate heaps to help the scavenger earn in a clean way.

    Re preconceived biases, articles rarely cover themselves with glory or usefulness by lamenting how someone else has failed.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • We must hope or we are sunk.

    We must hope or we are sunk. My worry is that ModiÔÇÖs record in Gujarat is not encouraging. Although heÔÇÖs had three terms as chief minister he has done little to keep the Sabarmati clean except for the fa├ºade ÔÇôthe waterfront development project. Sabarmati is highly polluted downstream of Ahmedabad and ecologists say it is because of untreated industrial effluents being discharged into the river. A 2012 study by the Central Pollution Control Board listed it among the most contaminated rivers. In fact, no river is clean in Gujarat ÔÇô as in the rest of India ÔÇô because industrial and city waste are dumped directly into them. Industrial clusters are supposed to treat their discharge at common effluent treatment plants but many of these work only on paper. The Ganga is a huge undertaking compared to the Sabarmati, and cleanliness at home (by Benaresis) is but a small part of this undertaking.

    Posted by: Latha Jishnu | 4 years ago | Reply
  • I am not an environmentalist

    I am not an environmentalist but it does seem inherently wrong, as you point out, to use the waters of one river to wash away the pollution in another ÔÇôif at all that is possible. Experts say that rivers can at best take care of the organic pollution from sewage if they have enough water or the minimum ecological flow to do so. But the Ganga, alas, is denuded of all its water by the major barrages on it. Once again another river, the Yamuna, this time, comes to the rescue of the Ganga when it joins the great river at Allahabad. But not all the waters it borrows can cleanse the Ganga of the pollution caused by industrial effluents and fertiliser/pesticide contaminated agricultural discharge. Dealing with the heavy metals and inorganic chemicals that result from such activities are beyond the capacity of any river. But is any government capable of ordering the closure of polluting industries or getting farmers to switch to organic cultivation?

    Posted by: Latha Jishnu | 4 years ago | Reply