New Delhi: The ancient city of Varanasi is undergoing a multi-billion-dollar transformation.
This small, congested city of around 82sq. km on the banks of the river Ganga has emerged as the showcase for India’s next generation urban infrastructure schemes.
These range from a metro rail, a multimodal terminal, logistics parks, waterways, even a pod taxi project to ease congestion on the city’s chaotic streets. Given the importance of rice cultivation in the Uttar Pradesh, an International Rice Research Institute is also being set up at Varanasi, which is represented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Lok Sabha and was included in the second phase of the government’s Smart Cities Mission.
“Varanasi is the heart of Uttar Pradesh and the city has importance from several aspects—tourism, religion and politics, apart from being the prime minister’s constituency. That’s one of the reasons the centre is keen on developing it and presenting it as a model city,” said a Union government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Proposed investments range from a staggering Rs20,000 crore for the metro rail system to a more modest Rs170 crore for the multimodal transport terminal and Rs1,000 crore for a so-called freight village. Other projects on the anvil include a Rs300 crore railway station redevelopment one, a Rs153 crore sewage treatment plant, a Rs100 crore pod taxi project, and a Rs211 crore convention centre.
A majority of these projects are coming up with central government assistance.
From its ancient ghats to temples, the promise of change is everywhere.
Varanasi is among three cities shortlisted for testing a rapid transport systems using pod cars—driverless vehicles that run along a pre-determined course, Mint reported on 15 September.
The government’s focus on Varanasi hasn’t lost on lending agencies such as Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) which inked a 2,240 million yen (around Rs130 crore) grant agreement last week for the construction of the Varanasi International Cooperation and Convention Centre (VCC).
To be sure, experts believe that the planned transformation may take some time.
“Given the complexity of land acquisition in India, and especially in Varanasi which is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, implementing such infrastructure projects will be a challenge and will be slow. However, each of these projects will contribute to significantly transforming Varanasi,” said Jaijit Bhattacharya, partner and head, economics, regulatory and policy advisory, KPMG in India.
Queries emailed to the prime minister’s office and the ministries of urban development and agriculture remained unanswered.
The importance of Varanasi and Ganga was apparent in the recent cabinet reshuffle, with Nitin Gadkari given charge of the ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation to deliver on the key election pledge of cleaning the Ganga before the next general election in 2019.
The 2,525-km river which flows through Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Jharkhand is also of key electoral importance as these states account for approximately 167 Lok Sabha constituencies.
Varanasi is also playing a key role in the National Waterway-1 (NW-1) programme on the river Ganga under the Jal Marg Vikas Project with a multimodal terminal being developed there.
“Varanasi is strategically located with a huge potential to facilitate the transshipment of domestic and export-import freight,” said Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) which is implementing the ambitious project in an emailed response.
“The project will connect the landlocked state of Uttar Pradesh to the South-east Asian countries through National Waterway 1 on river Ganga via the Bay of Bengal. National Waterway 1 will also provide seamless connectivity for cargo movement from Varanasi to country’s North-eastern region via Indo-Bangladesh Protocol Route.