Why you should care
Because traffic and trash shouldn’t hold a country back.
Part of a series about the promise of Narendra Modi’s India.
The kinds of observations one can make about the city of Varanasi are so platitudinous as to be almost offensive. This is India, and it is nothing new to note that things are messy, dirty, disorganized or confusing. For those with a stake in the subcontinent, though, it’s not just annoying — it’s downright frightening to see the city at the end of monsoon season, where flooding waters from the holy river Ganga strike up against traffic that crawls along at an inchworm pace. At the river itself, pilgrims and visitors cannot even walk down the steps known as the ghats to bathe in the sewage-tinged water; in August, those ghats were nearly fully submerged by rising water levels.
For those who want a glimpse into the task the world’s largest democracy faces as it tries to make its urban areas livable for the 21st century, it would be hard to find a better example than Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency, where all these problems are front and center. It’s where the additional specter of the environment looms large thanks to the Ganga waters, a reminder that every challenge of urbanization will become more urgent in the face of climate change. The city of 1.5 million (according to Census data) may not have a lot of solutions to boast of yet, but it’s certainly set thinkers flurrying to understand what looks like a canary in the coal mine of urban disaster — and how to try to create a turnaround in what some call the world’s tier-two cities, meaning a step down in size and importance from the big ones, like Mumbai, Delhi or Bangalore. “The ecological conditions are very bleak,” says Vijay Pandey, a Varanasi native and research scholar in the Delhi School of Economics’ geography department.
Over the last two years, as Modi kicked off his time in office, Indians have dared to hope that development and the hazy, fey future the country has long been promised will finally come to pass. Chief among these hopes: that Indian cities will at last become more livable, even beacons for progress that the rest of Asia can follow. There are some success stories, like Pune in the western state of Maharashtra. But much remains to be done in other Indian cities as they face basic challenges like equitable water distribution, sewage connection, employment deserts and traffic congestion. In “heritage” cities — which the Indian government has deemed protected because of historical significance — a roughly $76 million initiative is ready and waiting to be dispensed for usage. Yet money alone is not the problem, notes Binay Pratap Singh, a postdoctoral candidate in geography at Banaras Hindu University. He argues it’s a lack of political will to tackle knotty problems that seem to date back millennia.
In the 1970s, Singh adds, over half of Varanasi was open space — in 2011, that number sunk to under 4 percent. The city’s ability to dispose of waste is far under what it should be, with Ministry of Urban Development data showing almost a third of the city’s homes were unplumbed in 2013. Researchers at BHU also found that one in five Varanasi citizens lacks drinking water — the supply system was created in 1892, according to a report from the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi. And then there’s the city’s monkeys, who chew through electric cables above the Ganga. The challenges are similar across India’s urban environments, especially in tier-two cities, says Suveer Sinha, a partner at consulting firm McKinsey & Company who has worked on urbanization issues, including in Pune. An added wrinkle in Varanasi: This city has been industrially, spiritually and educationally important since the second century BCE. “We are talking about very old streets,” where the population has exploded beyond its original scale, Sinha points out. “How do you make sure things actually move in a place like this?”
Indian planners are getting to know their cities all over again, literally redrawing the map of urban areas.
So what now? For one, Indian planners are getting to know their cities all over again, literally redrawing the map of urban areas that have been named and renamed by Hindus, Muslims and the British over the centuries. Differentiating between the urban center of a city and the outer sprawl is the starting point, allowing planners to make transportation decisions. They’re also having to balance grand ambitions about sexy Wi-Fi-connected cities with the reality that sewage pumps along the water’s edge might need to come first. Varanasi is the most obvious — but not sole — example of how Modi’s astral plan to create 100 smart cities may strike up against ugly terrestrial realities.
And then there is the issue of employment. Sinha chalks up some of Pune’s success to the 800 colleges located in the city, which has drawn IT companies to collect on the talent. Though Varanasi is home to some good schools of its own, the informal economy still rules here, with residents toiling in dying handicraft industries, comprising a third of all industry in the city, meaning no plan can sustain itself unless it’s coupled with a labor-force rejuvenation. Already, the government has tried to protect handicraft artisans, offering them electricity subsidies and healthcare schemes — but experts say we’ve only begun to see the havoc to be wreaked on these ancient industries.
The questions facing Varanasi are not unlike those being dealt with by architects and planners in the heart of old Beijing or those tasked with the unlucky job of untangling new Bangkok. Asian cities not only have to contend with modern sprawl and teeming populations living cheek-to-jowl but also very old urban quarters unprepared for new transit updates. Which means preexisting Western models of development aren’t going to work, Sinha points out. “It has to be an Indianized model of urbanization,” says Sinha. “There are not a lot of role models.”