Being Varanasi, the Prime Minister’s Constituency, Is a Tough Job

Varanasi awaits Swacch Bharat, or Modi, whichever arrives first
Varanasi awaits Swacch Bharat, or Modi, whichever arrives first

On September 18, the ‘first constituency’ of Varanasi finally received Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Since the BJP came to power last year, PM Modi’s attempts to visit Varanasi, the seat he won with record margin, have, quite literally, been rained out.

The proposed visit in October last year was called off, when Cyclone Hudhud hit the eastern coast of the country. Visits planned for June and July this year were also cancelled, when Varanasi was hit by heavy monsoon showers and the unseemly death of a worker, who was working on arrangements for the prime minister’s visit at the programme venue in July.

Dev, who was in his early twenties, was part of a group of workers specially called in from West Bengal to supervise the decorations at the DLW grounds. The Midnapore-native died of electrocution and the Power Finance Corporation announced a relief-package of Rs 7.5 lakh for the family.

According to various reports and Khabar Lahariya’s conversations with the district administration, it appears that crores of rupees have been spent on the prime minister’s visits – three cancelled, fourth time lucky. (Estimates vary from Rs 7-9 crore for each visit.) Before each visit, arterial roads were levelled, street hawkers were cleared off the pavements weeks in advance, and the stage at the DLW grounds saw the drawing of special water-proof and fire-proof covers.

Thousands of chairs, fans, coolers were assembled at the grounds. The temporary helipad too came up. Posters, numbering in thousands, were printed for all the visits. Ahead of the cancelled-July visits, we spoke to a few artists working on posters for the rally. About 50,000 posters were designed, to go up on every street corner, intersection, and along all roads leading to the venue. “All these posters have gone to waste, since we also print the date on them,” one of the poster-artists told us.

Even for the September 18 rally, a day after Modi’s 66th birthday, preparations reached a fever-pitch. Officials told us that nearly Rs 4 crore had gone into the re-organisation of arrangements, decorations, etc. However, it appears that in the sound and fury of a prime ministerial visit, the ‘first constituency’ has been a bit of a loser.

Home to fine cricket pitches, where Ranji Trophy matches are played out, football grounds, where state-and-national level players train, and tennis courts, the DLW stadium is often host to the many keen sportspersons of the city. After the cancelled-July visit, when Khabar Lahariya visited DLW, the stadium’s cricket pitch was in ruins. The 22-yard pitch, brown and flat, was littered with the remains of that day – iron nails, plastic bags, shards of glass, and wood. “We’ve been playing here for three years now, and we have never seen the pitch look so bad,” Raju and Shivam told us.

The September visit has further ruined the grounds. Pits and holes have surfaced all over, and the pitch has been declared unfit for play. This could mean that the upcoming knockout rounds of the inter-state railway cricket tournament might not be hosted at DLW grounds. There will be no Swachh Bharat for the stadium.

Varanasi has also had to wait all these months for the PM to officially inaugurate the trauma centre at Banaras Hindu University, to announce the Integrated Power Development Scheme – projects worth Rs 572 crore for the city, the 16.5 km-long Varanasi Ring Road project, and the four-lane national highway-56 from Varanasi city to Babatpur airport.

In early September, when the trauma centre had already begun to function and Khabar Lahariya had gone visiting, the hospital was packed to the gills with patients. But the centre was in some state of disarray. We noticed a lack of wheelchairs to ferry around patients. In one case, a lady had to physically carry her disabled husband to the doctor for a checkup.

It has been more than a year since Modi took office at the Centre, but he is yet to make good on the electoral promise of 24×7 electricity to his constituency. There is no corner of Varanasi that enjoys full supply of electricity. The areas of Lohta, Lallapura, Alaipura and Bazardiha in the western part of the city, which are powerloom hubs, feel the lack of electricity the most. In Lohta alone, around 10,000 weavers work on powerlooms in backbreaking shifts round-the-clock to fashion out Banarsi sarees of all makes – the net cut, katan or applique. The erratic power supply, however, continues to hamper their productivity. On a good day, there’s just eight-nine hours of electricity.

Just last Sunday, at the Vishwanath temple, the famed Ganga arati was held in pitch darkness. Most residents can’t remember the last time they had a 24-hour supply. September 18, the day of Modi’s visit, was one such day.

On that day, PM Modi also announced a range of sops for the city and its residents. Besides the power and infrastructure projects, and the super speciality hospital, Modi gave away 501 cycle rickshaws and 101 e-rickshaws, 602 people were brought under the financial inclusion scheme of Jan Dhan Yojana, 660 dustbins for boatmen on the Ganga, and 6600 hygiene kits, carrying toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo and soap, for labourers.

Manoj, 27, is a father of three children. A street vendor, his cart is regularly pulled off the pavements ahead of any high-profile visit, including PM Modi’s. Now, he is one of the 101 people who’ve received e-rickshaws. However, the e-rickshaws have been given out on loan – at Rs 1.8 lakh each, with an interest of Rs 1,156 to be paid weekly. While the ruling Samajwadi Party has protested these ‘gifts’ given out on loan, Manoj hopes to raise the interest amount every week. Packing six-eight people in his brand new vehicle, he ferries workers, professionals and housewives from Manduadih to the cantonment area, charging Rs 15 per sawari for the 4-km ride. “A couple of us heard about this scheme in our area. Not from the BJP, just from the company that makes these e-rickshaws. Seven of us have availed of this scheme,” Manoj told us.

At Assi ghat, dozens of shiny new dustbins have joined the ranks of the older ones. Some of the boatmen have started to carry them on their boats. In the last year, since October 2, 2014, when the Swachh Bharat Mission was launched, Varanasi has seen the mission progress in fits and starts. While the riverfront has seen concerted campaigns for cleanliness, bustling, central areas continue to languish in filth. For instance, Swachh Bharat mission has never come to the road between Englishya Lines and Sigra, which is a prominent intersection in the heart of Varanasi. Less than a kilometre from the city’s municipality, garbage piles up, and farm produce rots.

Not a single beneficiary of the announced ‘hygiene kit’ could be found. When Khabar Lahariya contacted the Varanasi BJP headquarters several times, party-bearers had no idea about the sops or the recipients. Contact numbers were supplied, but no information was forthcoming.

On the first anniversary of the Swachh Bharat Mission, we can only see a city struggling to pick up the pieces after the Prime Minister.