I recently had a chance to visit Banaras and Kumbh for about 6 days. This is a summary of my experiences there. I had gone there to attend the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD -2019) and look around Banaras. The visit to the Kumbh Mela happened serendipitously.
I had come to Banaras almost 18 years back to assess if the Taj group should buy the Nadesar palace, a very large piece of land with a small palace on it. At the time I did visit the Ghats and the Vishwanath mandir and its precincts and was horrified in the way in which this city was being managed. Air connectivity was limited and the airport very basic. Nonetheless it was evident even to me who was merely an inexperienced 28 year old junior manager then that the time will come for this holy place. So we recommended to Taj to take over the Nadesar palace and maintain it is a boutique hotel and expanded to a very large deluxe hotel when someone will come to give the city its due. So we structured a lease instead of an out right purchase where in the lessor would get share of the revenue for whatever hotel that would come on it for a long time. The local people told me Nadesar Palace is doing very well now and charging upwards of Rs 50,000 per room night on good days !
As I landed I found a very modern airport with excellent connectivity to the city that seemed capable of dealing much much more than the 18 flights that land now daily (per the local driver). The airport looks good to take as much as 100 flights a day !
Although I stayed with some with some friends I did visit the tent city made in Banaras, for the overseas guests who had come to attend the PBD, to tide over the shortfall in hotel rooms. The arrangement were outstanding and I could not have believe that this is the same Banaras I visited 18 years back. The locals I stayed with were more astounded with the PBD event, the tent city and the ring roads.
Banaras has now many new facilities including a Trade facilitation centre which can hold many trade shows conferences This is built in the village where Kabir lived (photos below).
Once the PBD event was over, I was eager to see Banaras with my own eyes. Banaras has now uninterrupted power. In localities where the demand exceeds the capacity to distribute power, temporary arrangements have been made supply more power in those areas in short no excuses where tolerated. Here is a photo showing how the transformer capacity has been boosted using jugaad. This is found in many places and is not an isolated instance.
When I spoke to the locals they said that their diesel bill for generator has come down to zero. The savings for business establishment was quite significant especially for a low cost City such as
Banaras and it seemed to have improved the air quality also.
The first thing that struck me as I walk around the crowded areas was that there was no stench anymore. Conservancy staff where cleaning the streets at much greater intervals. Large proportion of the cups, kulhads, plates were being thrown properly in their designated areas.
While Delhi still wondering what to do to reduce, its pollution Banaras is moved on and is using electric vehicles for mobility a very large portion of these vehicles are electric vehicles which more than suffice and ideally suited for the small lanes and roads of old Banaras. Photos
The Kashi Vishwanath temple is being introduced to using modern temple management techniques. This ensures that there is more order and the revenues reach the temple rather than the middle man. Bank of Baroda has opened a facilitation centre near the temple where one can go and pay the fees for any of the pooja or for fast darshan of the temple. There are priests who take you into the temple and complete the Darshan and bring you back to the facilitation centre. The government has recognise that the temple complex is too small in relation to the number of people who like to visit this temple and has taken cognizance of the risks of pushing through more people into such a crowded areas and also the inability of the elderly and the infirm to be able to get Darshan of Kashi Vishwanath so they have acquired land around the temple and are in the process of constructing a large temple complex which will make the entry of people into the temple a very organised matter. Once these changes are made Ma Gange can be viewed from Kashi Vishwanath temple and there will be a long corridor from the temple to the river and all facilities will be there inside the temple for the pilgrims.
It struck me that we need an institute of temple management in India today along the lines of IRMA which was setup to create specific management knowledge in the realm of rural and agricultural management. Pilgrimage and temple economy maybe equal in size to the dairy economy of India or even larger despite the neglect, benign or otherwise for the past 70 years, and requires a specialised body of knowledge for managing the same. There is a serious anomaly in the way in which tourism statistics are computed in India due to the fact that India is practically a continent masquerading as a country (more in this blog).
Expansion of the temple complex may seem like a small matter but the addition of the few acres and superior management of the movement of pilgrims and their requirements could double the economy of Varanasi along with the additional infrastructure of the airport and road connectivity.
I went round the ghats to see for myself if indeed the river is clean in most regards. There is no floating debris and no odour and at the Dashashwamedh ghat you could even see the stones in the river during such a crowded season.
You can see that the waters are getting cleaner. Here is a photo of water collected from middle of the Ganga.
I also visited the Manikarnika ghats where the funerals take place and found that arrangements have been made for proper funerals at these Ghats. Nothing is thrown into the river and seeing this I was surprised that how no one had done this before considering it was such an obvious and simple thing to do. There is something at the funeral ghats of Banaras that makes you realise how transient life is! Visiting these Ghats was one of the best experiences of my visit to Banaras.
At the end of my trip I did get a chance to attend the Kumbh Mela and decide to extend my trip by one day. The road from Banaras to Prayagraj is being made into 4 lane divided highway which will perhaps cut the commute time from 3 hours to one and half hours when completed. Work is going on at a frenetic place for its completion !
Arrangements at the Kumbh were simply outstanding. Law and order, electricity, roads and signages, water and waste management and connectivity was planned and executed very well. Indrapastham tent city by UP tourism has well appointed tents with very good facilities to ensure that Kumbh attracts high end visitors also !
In the years to come the Kumbh will drive the economy of the places where it is held and in the year it is held economists will say that the Kumbh economy cannot be compared to non Kumbh years and will want to remove the Kumbh effect on the economy of that region ! Some visuals ..
The morale and the effectiveness of the Uttar Pradesh police force has gone up a lot among their own citizenry and more so among the tourist and visitors to the state. This to my mind is a very deep transformation.
During my many interactions with the the ordinary people it was clear that they now understood the difference between governance and lack of it, leaders who could deliver and those who can't, and between lip service and walking the talk. In fact many of the common people were cribbing that government was insisting on correcting many of the anomalies and implementing the laws in letter and spirit very strictly. It seemed to me that change in this society was now limited to the pace at which society will adapt to moving to rule of law...
It seemed that this society was now collectively introspecting as to price paid for their past choices as a collective and whether they needed the rule of law or the rule of "their man" having evidenced the latter for better part of last thirty years ...
In conclusion I found a new Uttar Pradesh which is confident and capable of finding solutions to problems which had kept them behind. No doubts there are lot of problems and it is a long road ahead but the society seemed to have found the appetite to handle what's ahead ... as a person who has observed Indian economy for last two and half decades and a participant in India stock market it seem to me that the road to India's social, political, and economic future clearly nows run through Uttar Pradesh !
Before you go I leave you with more visuals of the beautiful ghats ! Ganga maiyya ki Jai