Recently, I came across a delightful new book on Benaras in which the old city and its iconic ghats have been carefully divided into a series of walks that would help Benarasis as well as visitors and pilgrims discover this ancient city on the banks of the Ganga. Amidst all the talk about cleaning the river, there have, expectedly, been forecasts that the problem is so humungous that it is, in fact, insurmountable. Ironically, this reflects the eternal lethargy towards restoring the Eternal City. While reading the book, I realized that it could be an ideal manual to implement the ‘Clean Benaras Action Plan’ that would stall rubbish from the city being dumped into the river.
Industrial effluents and sewage from the city need an alternative disposal site that must be built urgently. Ideally, a project should be initiated where the waste gets transformed into power that is added to the city grid. Technologies are available with undertakings such as the Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited to do this effectively. It requires determination and unstinted political support from all parties, setting aside the mindless ‘main main tu tu’ that is indulged in by opposing political dispensations at the cost of India and its long-suffering people.
Simultaneously, the different sections in the city, as laid out in this guide book of walks, could be used as the map to clean up Benaras. This is eminently doable. It is frustrating to hear the moans and groans about the problems and how impossible they are. There is no attempt to make Benaras clean, walkable and livable in a bid to showcase this extraordinary civilization without tampering with the gallis or the overcrowded shops selling their special kind of merchandise. The open drains need to be covered. People from the mohallas have to be made responsible for the alleys. For example, if there are four people hired to sweep the ghats clean twice a day, the change would be palpable. There are solutions galore if anyone is willing to listen and execute plans.
While attempting a renewal, Benaras’s style, ethos and aesthetics must be left alone. Only the external habitat should be cleaned and restored. Any attempt to introduce alien and ugly imitations that a modernizing India is addicted to would damage Kashi’s ethos forever. The Benarasis must revive their city for themselves and the world. They must revive their traditional skills, cuisines, faith, music and the arts. Other towns and cities that line the river both upstream and downstream need to do the same — stop the effluents from being dumped into the waters.
There was a fine documentary on one of the news channels that spelt out the horrendous destruction of the course of the Ganga from Gangotri downwards, brought about by small dams that have reduced this mighty river to a polluted stream in some stretches. Many people have battled to save the river but, sadly, the previous dispensation ignored the problem. The solution will be difficult to implement but the problem needs to be addressed if the river is to be saved. There is no point allocating vast resources to clean the Ganga in the plains if it is being mauled on the higher reaches. That is like throwing money into a gutter. The river’s fury at being mistreated will, one day, overwhelm all else.
The only way to begin the process of respecting the river is by ensuring that the cities on its banks do not use it as a dumping ground for sewage and industrial effluents. That act should be deemed a criminal offence for all the ‘river cities’. We need our waters to be revered. We need municipalities to be accountable.