Learning from Varanasi – Workshop Report

by William Gould

 Introduction to the project

The Utopian Cities project was introduced by Drs Ayona Datta and Anu Sabhlok by firstly explaining the overall rationale for the project as a whole and secondly by looking at what would come up for the second workshop in Chandigarh.  Utopian Cities involves the setting up of four city workshops in locations that have been identified as ‘Smart Cities’ but which cover a range of possible urban futures, from those focussing on infrastructural development to heritage cities – Chandigarh and Navi Mumbai representing the first group and Varanasi and Nashik the second.  The format of the meetings closely follows the overall rationale of the project in examining the relationship between ‘top down’ visions of the city, compared to ‘grassroots’ utopian visions.  However, the meetings are also an opportunity for us to explore new ideas about urban utopias as they emerge in each specific place.   William Gould also explained the roots of the project, how the collaboration came about and the relationship between the AHRC and the ICHR.

The morning session

The first session worked under the theme of ‘Varanasi and Urban Heritage’.  Unfortunately, one of the speakers, Dr. Navneet Raman was unable to attend for personal reasons, so the session involved the presentation of Professor Rana Singh with questions and responses.  Professor Singh explored ‘Banaras, the Heritage City of India: Contemporary Planning, Contestation and Orientation’, and focussed principally on the changing representations of the tangible and intangible heritage of the city.  In particular, he illustrated the multiple ways in which the city’s spiritual geography has been mapped and ‘imagined’ by a wide range of both Indian and external academics and agencies.  He went on to talk about the specific buildings and sites of the city, and examples of intangible heritage in the form of local performances and arts.  Finally, he explored the relationship between Varanasi as a heritage city and the bid for Smart City status.  This was characterised as essentially a failure of the administration to consistently follow up on specific plans and agendas set at the time of the bid itself.

The second session of the day involved four papers and a short presentation and was set up under the heading of ‘Varanasi and the urban grassroots’.  Professor J B Komariah and Mr Darshan Kumar Jha both presented papers exploring the nature of the informal economy in the city and the size, composition and location of the main slums.  These papers principally discussed the demography of each slum, the nature of their changing infrastructural needs and deficiencies, and the changing socio-economic patterns within the slum populations.  Komariah, looking principally at the Nagwa, Pasiangali and Shivpurwa slums, discussed the changing livelihoods of the slum communities, and gender variations.  He also pointed to the importance of continuing inter-household relations in the maintenance of livelihoods, notions of commitment and sensibility, and the role of friendship over ‘influence’.  Darshan Kumar Jha illustrated the location of the city’s 227 slums, which make up around 34% of the total city population.  Nearly all of the slums have been in existence for more than 40 years, yet they still mostly suffer from poor sanitation and waste disposal – 46% of them have open drains.  Less than 33% of the slum population make use of hospitals.

Following the papers on Slums, a representative of the Vendor’s Union in Varanasi, Mr. Chintamani, gave a presentation describing the problems faced by street vendors following the implementation of new municipal laws in the city.  One of these prohibited the selling of goods by his community within 200 metres of the Ganga.  Chintamani described how a nexus had developed between policemen and autorickshaw wallahs by which the latter would physically prevent the sale of goods within certain areas.

The third paper in the session built on the issue of sanitation in the city, and was presented by Mr. Pintu Kumar of the Srishti Sanrakshnam – a student organisation which is committed to promoting a cleaner city and improving urban ecology.  Kumar detailed the nature of the clean city campaigns which his organisation has set up, some in collaboration with state and central government initiatives.  In particular, Kumar discussed the ways in which other NGOs can be co-opted into these movements and the means by which they might exercise leverage on local government.  Finally, the morning session was rounded off with a paper by Prof Ravi Singh, who presented a visually complex assessment of Varanasi’s ‘peri-urban interface zone’.  The pace with which Varanasi’s ‘undeveloped’ zone’s have changed since the 1980s is quite fast, probably exceeding the current estimate of peri-urban growth accounting for 40% of total urban growth over the next 25 years.  However, it was also the case that these zones generally lack the same levels of infrastructural development of other parts of the city.  The paper discussed the means by which these zones might develop forms of resilience and sustainability, especially around safe water supply and food security.

 The afternoon session

 Following a short and entertaining presentation by Prof U K Choudhary on the geomorphology of the Ganga, and its relationship to other rivers in the state, the afternoon session was composed of two very contrasting presentations.  The first was a paper by Mr. Shyam Lal Singh, from Planner India whose prepared talk was based on the specific programmes and planning agendas for the city.  The talk elicited some lively discussion and questions, from which it was learned that there are effectively no government tenders for planning work in the sense that this takes place for public sector contracts.  In fact, it seemed to be the case that Planner India was initiating planning advice to the municipal and state government as well as acting on the instructions of specific officials or policy units.  Finally, there were some questions over the gulf between the tendering of plans and implementation.

The final presentation of the day was by Dr. Sandeep Pandey and discussed some of the ways in which Varanasi’s recent expansion had resulted in negative outcomes for the urban poor.  In particular, Pandey discussed the predicament of those without the resources to influence the municipality, and those specifically vulnerable to the somewhat arbitrary decisions to construct for example, widened roads.  The example of communities among the urban poor who lived near the BHU campus was discussed and the history of the university’s expansion in terms of its effect on local communities.

 Discussion and future directions

The final discussions picked up on Dr. Sandeep Pandey’s presentation and posed the following questions:  a) how do we combine the need to maintain and sustain the tangible and intangible heritage of the city with the requirements that rapid urbanisation raise?; b) what kinds of leverage can the city’s poor exercise in relation to local government and planning policy?  What support can they expect and from what kinds of organisations? c) To what extent are the problems created by rapid urbanisation experienced in different ways by different groups in the city?

IMAGE COURTESY OF JAN BELLA
© ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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