The Uttar Pradesh government’s plan to construct a corridor between the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi and the river Ganga has run into opposition from local residents.

The 400-metre long corridor, estimated to cost around Rs 450 crore, is supposed to provide devotees “clear access” to the temple after taking a ritual dip in the Ganga. The residents allege it is designed merely to make it more convenient for VVIPs to visit the temple, which is regarded as one of the holiest Hindu shrines in India.

Varanasi has played host to several high-profile visitors in recent years, most notably in December 2015, when Japanese premier Shinzo Abe attended a grand Ganga Aarti ritual with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The plan would require demolishing over 160 houses and possibly several smaller shrines, many of them of historical and cultural significance, residents contend. City authorities, however, refuted these claims, stating that only encroachments will be removed.

Padampati Sharma, a veteran journalist who lives near the temple, articulated the anger of many of his neighbours when he wrote a Facebook post describing now the project would imperil the city’s cultural heritage. “What even Babar and Aurangzeb could not do, Yogi Adityanath’s government will,” Sharma wrote in Hindi, referring to the Mughal emperors who are alleged by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and other Hindutva organisations to have razed some Hindu shrines, including in Varanasi.

Sharma said he realised his 175-year-old home was marked for destruction when officials of the Varanasi Development Authority arrived for a survey on January 29. He has threatened to immolate himself if his home is demolished to make way for the corridor. “Now there will be war, enough of begging,” he wrote on Facebook.

Sharma and other residents of the area have formed Vishwanath Mandir Virasat Bachao Samiti, an organisation dedicated to “saving the cultural heritage of Varansi”. They have also held a series of protests over the past two days, and more are planned, demanding the government abandon the project.

“This is Kashi, it is not any other place,” explained Sharma. “How can you develop it on lines of Sabarmati riverfront [in Gujarat] or Gomti riverfront [in Lucknow]. Every place in this city has history, this is not development but destruction.”

A protest against the proposed development. Photo credit: Facebook/Padmapati Sharma

‘Staying illegally’

The Kashi Vishwanath project was apparently formulated eight years ago, only to be shelved by the successive governments of the Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party. It was revived when the BJP under Adityanath took over early last year. “This project was rejected by Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav and it is ironic that it is being taken up by this regime” which has always projected itself as a defender of the Hindu religion and culture,” Sharma said.

Nevertheless, the BJP government seems inclined to see the project through. Adityanath visited Varanasi on January 31 and spoke to the officials about it. “The project was conceived years ago,” said Vishal Singh, secretary of the Varanasi Development Authority who is nodal officer for the project. “Only now there is political will, so it has been revived.”

Refuting residents’ allegation that the proposed corridor will displace scores of families that have been living in the area for ages and destroy historical places, Singh said, “It is just wrong information spread by vested interests. A lot of people are staying there illegally. They have build houses within historical monuments, some people are even living in temples. Anything that has any historical importance will be protected.”