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Why it's only Modi ki guarantee, not BJP's, and how Varanasi has seen it up-close

"Development" along Ganga
By Rosamma Thomas* 
I was in Varanasi in this April, days before polling began for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. There are huge billboards advertising the Member of Parliament from Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The only image on all these large hoardings is of the PM, against a saffron background. It is as if the very person of Modi is what his party wishes to showcase.
Modi ki guarantee – that is the theme of the BJP manifesto, and it might be instructive to see how this has fared in the home constituency of the prime minister. In November 2021, newspapers reported that Varanasi would have the country’s first ropeway public transport by 2023. It would come up in the public-private partnership mode, at a cost of over Rs400 crore, covering a distance of only 3.6 km, from the Varanasi Junction railway station to Godowliya and the Ganga Ghats. Godowliya is also the junction from where tourists can head to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple.
In April 2024, as I visited, there was still no sign of the ropeway, and traffic in the city was a nightmare – roads near Lanka, leading to the campus of the Benaras Hindu University, were choked with traffic, reduced to a crawl.
Members of the public I spoke with about the ropeway were also wondering how the project was planned, in the first place. Ropeways have only been known to exist in India in mountainous regions – helping to cover vast distances that would otherwise have been difficult treks. 
Over flat lands like in Varanasi, it was not clear how the ropeway would function – besides, the city is a den of kite-fliers, and the manja used for the kites might cut the necks of those in ropeway cars. There is, as yet, no sign of the promised ropeway. Modi ki guarantee?
Saraiyya: Threads at a weaver's house; Banarsi sari
Hot air balloon rides are also planned as an annual feature, and these too have been experimented with but are rather expensive and for a short duration. Such rides were held for the first time in January 2021, but it is not clear if they have been repeated annually. In any case, we know by now that Modi ki guarantee comes with a lot of hot air.
In 2018, the government allowed three private cruise ships to operate in the Ganga near Varanasi, in time a few more were allowed to operate. This has disrupted the means of livelihood of the local boatmen, the mallahs, whose incomes have shrunk. 
The mallahs say they were never consulted about the introduction of the cruise vessels, and that the government appeared to be conspiring with large corporate firms to disrupt the lives of boatmen. Modi ki guarantee was perhaps never meant for the mallahs, who comprise a lower caste?
On April 21, 2024, addressing an election rally, Modi made his contempt for Indian Muslims clear – referring to the Congress manifesto, he said the plan was to re-distribute wealth such that Muslims, the bearers of many children, get access to the nation’s wealth. He asked his audience if they wanted to see their hard-earned money being cornered by Muslims and illegal infiltrators. 
This description of Muslims as enemies is carved into the very monumental core of Varanasi. Gyanvapi Mosque, that once stood almost embracing the Kashi Temple, has been cordoned off, caged into a corner, and high walls have been raised at the new Kashi Vishwanath corridor that only allow one a glimpse of the mosque through a narrow opening between the temple walls.
Saraiyya: Development vs faith?
In January 2024, the local corporation passed a proposal to ban the sale of meat within a 2-km radius of the Kashi Vishwanth temple. Even beyond this radius, though, meat sellers are routinely harassed. The area in the immediate vicinity of this proposed range has at least 30 members of the Muslim community engaged in the sale of mutton, and these families are suddenly thrust into uncertainty. 
Not all of them have other sources of income. Slaughter houses have already been shut, and the slaughter of animals now occurs within the premises of the shops selling meat – such slaughter is not permitted in law, so this has opened up one more opportunity for policemen to threaten and extort money from the butchers.
It is pertinent to note that the meat of goats is used in Ayurvedic medicines recommended for those suffering from tuberculosis. In 2023, Uttar Pradesh notified over six lakh new TB patients, the highest in the country.
At Saraiyya, where a large number of households have looms and weave Banarasi sarees, residents complained that they were offered a power subsidy to run their looms earlier, but that has been as good as withdrawn and power costs have escalated, making the work unprofitable. 
“In my father’s time, a weaver would earn more than a schoolteacher – so it was not considered wise to give up the skill and take to education. These days, we have been hit so hard, with all the input costs rising while the price of our product has not matched the rising inputs. Just like India’s farmers, we struggle,” one weaver told me. 
Saraiyya is also the site of a large flyover project, and pillars for this project have been laid at the entrance to an old mosque. Construction projects in the area appear ill-planned, with one railway overbridge having caused sewers to burst two years ago. There are households here with looms operated by members of the family, but ever since the introduction of GST, the weavers have had none of the concessions offered to cottage industries.
At Kazzakpur, residents who work on contract basis as sanitation workers with the corporation said they were served eviction notice through a public announcement – as it is, their houses are behind a large garbage collection point, and the wind brings in the smell of the putrid waste. Even so, they have painted their tiny homes, and their electricity connections all have meters and they have been paying for the electricity they use. 
Flattened Sarva Seva Sangh, founded by Vinoba Bhave
The nearly 45 families have rallied together and approached the court, thanks to the aid of honest lawyers who have given residents a copy of the petition filed in court, so they can produce documents in case any attempt is made by the authorities to forcibly evict them. One resident showed me all the documents neatly filed away, and said he had been living in the area for two generations. 
These are all families that have members serving as sanitation staff, and they remark sarcastically that all land in the Sacred City of Temples is holy ground, on which poor sanitation workers can hardly lay claim. No formal notices were served to these poor families, but every precaution is being taken, given that the government had no qualms flattening even the buildings of the Sarva Sewa Sangh, a Gandhian organization whose buildings were demolished last year.
At Chirai village of Milkopur near Varanasi, farmer Rajkumar says the government has served him a notice claiming that his land is actually government land – even though he has documents to prove ownership, and his land was inherited from his father. Rajkumar and his three brothers have inherited 18 biswa of land, about half an acre. 
They are not alone in being thus threatened with loss of land, and perhaps no compensation at all – there are about 200 farmers who have been served such notices, and the village pradhan has a large file filled with documents that he has shared with lawyers. This matter too is pending in court. None of the people I spoke with in the area had been approached by the media, and no reports of this proposed mass eviction of villagers have yet appeared.
Kazzakpura: Safai karamchari colony threatened with eviction
Not all those I spoke with had such bitter experiences, though. A waiter at a hotel in Varanasi who proudly introduced himself as a Sharma, a Brahmin, said he had always voted BJP – asked what he got from the government, he said schools and roads were all much improved. He seemed oblivious that the government was actually cutting down on the number of government schools and staff.
Residents of a colony near the office of the Dainik Jagran newspaper too spoke highly of the government, with plaques outside their door showing that they had received support from the PM Awas Yojna to renovate their houses. “We got Rs2.5 lakh in instalments,” one woman said, adding that she had received a gas cylinder too and was extremely grateful to the prime minister. 
Her neighbor, however, said she had received nothing at all, and her attempts to put in an application for the Awas Yojna too had proved futile. “They are not even accepting applications anymore,” she said.
---
*Freelance journalist

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