Can't fathom what we get by proclaiming PM is our MP: Varanasi mahant

Ghats of Varanasi
Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, 53, is a professor at the department of electronics engineering, Indian Institute of Technology-Banaras Hindu University, and one of the foremost critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Namami Gange’ project and the development work undertaken in Varanasi the past five years.

Mishra is also the mahant, or high priest, of Varanasi’s famous Sankat Mochan Hanuman temple, established in the 16th century by poet saint Goswami Tulsidas, the author of Ramacharitamanas.

Mishra also runs the Sankat Mochan Foundation that his father, Veer Bhadra Mishra, founded in the early 1980s with the objective of cleaning the Ganga. His father retired as a professor of hydraulic engineering and headed the civil engineering department of at the IIT (BHU). He passed away in 2013, aged 74.

The foundation submitted a comprehensive plan to clean the Ganga to the Varanasi civic authorities in 1997. It was an alternative to the government’s Ganga Action Plan, launched by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1986. Mishra says the foundation has struggled since then to implement the plan, but neither the previous governments nor Modi government’s ‘Namami Gange’ has addressed the key issues.

In a conversation with Archis Mohan, Mishra said Varanasi needs a ‘local’ to represent it in the Lok Sabha, and indicated his willingness to contest against Modi if he were to be the common candidate of a united opposition. Varanasi votes on May 19.

How do you look at the development work carried out in Varanasi in the last five years?

Banaras is not just a city, but also an adjective. If you prefix ‘Banarasi’ with something, it becomes incomparable or unparalleled. For example, Banarasi saris, or Banarasi langda (mango) and even a Banarasi thug. After five years, a people who prided in thug vidya, or expertise, now find they themselves have been victims.

I speak of the pain that Kashi has suffered. In the name of development and infrastructure, we find its heritage destroyed. Kashi, unlike Venice or other iconic heritage cities, has a living heritage. It has buildings and monuments, but also their occupants that help us visualise the life in the city that must have existed a thousand years back.

As Mark Twain wrote, Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together. We believe Lord Shiva lives in the stones and structures of Banaras, and all its residents are elements of Shiva. One should think a thousand times before erasing this history and linkages. In the last five years, in the name of building a corridor, this history, several temples and labyrinthine galis erased and occupants relocated in the name of rehabilitation. Why would people visit Banaras when it becomes another version of a Gurgaon, or any other big city?

Your father was somewhat of a pioneer in raising the issue of Ganga cleaning. What is your assessment of the Namami Gange project?

We started in 1982, and the government launched the Ganga Action Plan in 1986. The first plan, implemented in 1993, was unsuccessful. Subsequent governments did not do much, but in 2014, people were hopeful the Modi government would accomplish what past governments could not. They constituted a dedicated ministry for the purpose. Unfortunately, Ganga is worse than what it was five years back.

The commitment was to make it a class ‘B’ river, or fit for bathing. Gangaji is not any other river. People come here for its darshan, some take a bath and some do achmana, a purification ritual that involves drinking the river water. In Ganga’s context, this classification has little meaning.

The scientific parameters of class B River, in a river that is fit for bathing, the fecal coliform count should be less than 500 per 100 ml, biochecmical oxygen demand, or BOD, should be less than 3 mg per litre and dissolved oxygen should be more than 5 mg per litre. For a river to meet drinking standards, fecal coliform count should be zero.

Today, raw sewage amounting to 350 million litres per day flows into Ganga when infrastructure is in place to treat only 102 MLD, and two units are non-functional. The technology used is the same as which failed in the first phase. We do regular monitoring in our laboratory. At Tulsi ghat, which is upstream and where we are sitting, fecal coliform count is 110,000 per 100 ml when it should be under 500, while BOD is 9-10 mg per litre. Dissolved oxygen is not a problem. Today, 33 drains empty their raw sewage into Ganga. The sewage treatment plants is a redundant process, also because they do not remove fecal coliform bacteria. Downstream, at Varuna confluence, the fecal coliform count is 60 million per 100 ml. However, people come here and claim Ganga is looking cleaner than before. I agree that nobody has a magical wand, but this was the topmost commitment!

But Varanasi has witnessed lots of construction...

Their planners land from New Delhi, and from the airport to the city finalise their plan and return to Delhi within two hours. They couldn’t care less about local inputs or study the requirement of Banaras. They have executed their ‘mann ki baat’ here. Consider the project to put overhead wires underground. The result is that some or the other part of the labyrinth of Banaras is perennially dug up because faults are frequent. The road space is saturated, and underground network has drinking water pipes, sewerage system and now power cables.

The entire effort is to spend ever more money so that commissions are handsome.

Investment of that kind of funds must have helped local economy...

Banarasis have been kept out. Neither the contractors nor the workers are from Banaras. It is a design to change the original character of Banaras. They have already changed some in the first phase, and will destroy the rest in the second. They have disturbed the ambience and habitat of Vishwanath temple, its neighbouring structures dislocated, narrow passages done away with.

The real Banaras is the strip adjacent to the river, and their entire attack is on this strip. The old Banaras is about a way of life, banarasiyat, where a multimillionaire might have a rickshaw puller or a paan seller as his best friend, of eating jalebis and kachuari…They are destroying its social fabric.

Varanasi had a vibrant local handicrafts industry

Answer: It had thriving wooden toy making industry and local handicrafts. It has not been promoted and people have given up on their old crafts to take up new businesses. Weavers have relocated to Bengaluru, and I hear they have now bought a graveyard there, which means they are never going to come back. Banaras is old and fragile, and reconstruction should be done carefully or the entire city will collapse.

Varanasi has had ‘outsiders’ representing it in the Lok Sabha

That is the unfortunate part. It needs a ‘resident’ MP, someone who lives here, who is approachable. I don’t understand what we get by proclaiming that the PM is our MP. Such a person would visit rarely, would execute his ‘mann ki baat’, and is sure to be unapproachable.

People in Varanasi are talking about you as a candidate against the PM.

Answer: Yes, I know but do you the (party) ticket? We can talk about it then. What is certain is that I would not go beg for a ticket. Also, I would need to quit some of the work I am doing now to enter politics.

I live Kashi, and I live Ganga and I can fight with anyone if any harm comes to either Kashi or Ganga.