Over the past two years, Varanasi's 'ghats' have become a little cleaner, but there is still a long way to go. A look at a key feature of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's constituency
Ask anyone who is a frequent visitor to Varanasi and chances are that they will have a favourite ghat where they like to sit and watch the world go by. There is the main Dashashwamedh Ghat, where the spectacular evening aarti, often considered to be one of the most iconic images of Varanasi, is held. There is the Darbhanga Ghat, with its magnificent palace made of sandstone, boasting of porches and what some believe are Greek architecture-inspired pillars. And then, of course, there are the cremation ghats, Harishchandra and Manikarnika.
In the evening, the waters in front of the Manikarnika Ghat are filled with boats full of Western tourists, watching the multiple pyres burn. Death does become a spectacle.
But let us not dwell on the history of these ghats; rather, let’s talk about their future, which has been threatened by neglect.
Even now, most of the ghats are little more than littering grounds and, in some cases, even open toilets. The biggest problem in Varanasi is that even if the ghats are cleaned, disposal of garbage remains a herculean task. Sewage treatment plants have long been identified as one of the most important ways of ensuring that the Ganga becomes cleaner, but they remain a distant dream. The water of the river resembles sludge; plastic water bottles and empty chips packets float on the surface. Sometimes, you come across a human corpse. Efforts to promote the use of electric crematoriums rather than the traditional wood pyre have not yielded results yet.
In the run-up to the 2014 election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised to clean the city and the ghats. The reality, however, is that Varanasi remains filthy, though things are moving, slowly, with some public-private partnerships, some volunteers and not-for-profits taking up the cause.
Assi Ghat, the southernmost ghat in Varanasi and also the biggest, does seem to have benefited. A stage has been erected, benches and urinals have been set up, and a few Sulabh employees, mouths and faces covered, can be seen sweeping it regularly. Sulabh International, a sanitation-oriented not-for-profit, has been present in Varanasi for some time. “We were involved with the cleaning of six ghats, including Dashashwamedh, when, in 2014, the district magistrate approached us to take over the cleaning of Assi Ghat," recalls B.N. Chaturvedi, adviser, Sulabh International. “Fifty-four steps were completely buried under silt. We spent over ₹ 70 lakh just to clean those. In fact, when the Prime Minister visited the ghat later on, he also praised the work."
According to him, 18 Sulabh employees work every day to keep the ghat clean; he claims that it is the cleanest ghat in Varanasi today.
But why were the ghats so dirty in the first place? Don’t people have a sense of pride in what gives their city its identity? Chaturvedi laughs and admits he does not have an answer, but adds that the attitude of people is changing, slowly. “Right now people might not be actively involved in the cleaning but they don’t dirty it either," he adds.
There is a community effort that is being led by youngsters, chief amongst them Temsutula Imsong, a 32-year-old social worker from Nagaland who moved to Varanasi in 2013. She started with the cleaning of the Prabhu Ghat in 2015 when a boat ride down the Ganga took her past it and she was assailed by the stench emanating from it. Turns out, the ghat was little more than an open toilet, completely covered with human waste and silt. She, along with her friends and other volunteers, cleaned up the ghat over three days in March 2015. Today, Imsong runs Mission Parijat, a programme in Varanasi under which she and her team have undertaken the clean-up of two reservoirs—Sonebhadra Kund and Gauri Kund—apart from the Babua Pandey Ghat.
Mission Parijat also hosts weekly debates on the cleanliness of ghats and Imsong says the reaction of people, both locals and tourists, always surprises them. “People join in voluntarily when they see us cleaning." Every week, a team of students from the Benaras Hindu University (BHU) also pitches in.
Some of the impact is visible. Whether it’s people just sitting, playing music or taking part in cricket matches—one can see the beginnings of a community life springing up again on the ghats.