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Above: Prime Minister Modi at the foundation stone laying ceremony of the Kashi corridor project/Photo: UNI

With the disposal of petitions challenging the Kashi corridor project, the apex court has cleared the way for fruition of the PM’s pet dream and for Varanasi to get a picture postcard image

By Atul Chandra in Lucknow

With a two-judge vacation bench of the Supreme Court disposing of a clutch of petitions against Varanasi’s Kashi Vishwanath Temple Extension and Beautification Plan, also called the Kashi corridor project, the stage is set for the age-old narrow lane leading to the famous Shiva temple to get a wider, modern look.

The 75-m-wide corridor will link the Kashi Vishwanath temple with the Ganga. After its completion, pilgrims will be able to reach the temple directly from Manikarnika, Jalasen and Lalita ghats through this corridor without any hindrance.

The petitions challenging the project were filed by some house owners, shop tenants and the Carmichael Library Association, Gyanvapi. They had opposed the demolition of buildings, including the library, to clear the way for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious project. They claimed that the project would adversely affect their lives and jeopardise their livelihoods.

The Carmichael Library building, which was acquired on February 15, has 26 shops which are occupied on rent. The shopkeepers said they were being deprived of their livelihood, and thus demanded rehabilitation. According to the district administration, the library building, like others, was actually being purchased by the state government and the Kashi Vishwanath Temple Trust for demolition to pave the way for the project. Adequate payment had been made for the buildings, the administration claimed. The library building’s original owner is said to have sold it to the government, but the tenants invoked the UP Rent Control Act for the settlement of their tenancy rights and said their case should be dealt with separately.

Justices Sanjiv Khanna and BR Gavai of the vacation bench disposed of the petition after the Uttar Pradesh government argued that the affected persons had been offered compensation ranging from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 10 lakh. The traders found the compensation of Rs 1-2 lakh too small to start life afresh.

In June, six shop owners who filed a petition for increased compensation were advised by the Supreme Court to “engage with the UP government for adequate compensation”. Appearing for the UP government, senior advocate Nidhesh Gupta contended before a vacation bench of Justices Deepak Gupta and Surya Kant that the project was spread over 47,000 square metres and “the petitioners’ premises in question is merely 100 square metres. How could they be allowed to stall the project”?

The Allahabad High Court too had dismissed the petition on May 22. A division bench of Justices B Amit Sthalekar and Piyush Agarwal had asked the petitioners to file a civil complaint instead. Earlier, in July 2018, the High Court dismissed a PIL challenging the corridor project on the ground that large-scale demolitions and the corridor would alter the city’s original appearance. Chief Justice DB Bhosale and Justice Yashwant Varma, who refused to stop the development project, were of the opinion that the “corridor was for the benefit of public at large”.

Of the 291 buildings and houses to be demolished, the government has already “purchased through negotiation” 257 and only 34 remain. Two hundred and fifty-seven structures have already been demolished. With the Supreme Court’s latest order removing all the hurdles blocking the project, which will be developed on a 39,310 sq-m area, Varanasi is all set to acquire a picture postcard image.

The state government made an initial allocation of Rs 600 crore for the corridor. Of this, Rs 290 crore was given to the temple administration for purchasing the properties. The Sri Kashi Vishwanath Special Areas Development Board was formed in July 2018 for better execution of the project. Forty-three historical temples and other structures of architectural importance unearthed during the demolition of the buildings already purchased are being preserved to retain some of the old look. Some of the demolished two and three-storey structures were said to be around 300 years old.

On March 8, the prime minister laid the corridor’s foundation stone by laying five bricks with the temple’s name inscribed on them. He used the occasion to target the previous government of Akhilesh Yadav for a “non-cooperative environment”. He reportedly said that renovating the temple complex was his “long-standing dream”. The prime minister reportedly said: “I am told the Mahashivratri celebrations this time were special in Kashi. We are working on projects that will improve facilities for pilgrims in Kashi…We are connecting the Kashi Vishwanath temple with the Ganga so that devotees can travel directly between the two holy places.”

Although the narrow lanes leading to the famous temple are the city’s identity, Modi went on to add that the corridor will give Kashi “a new identity in the whole world”. Reminding the audience of his visit to the pilgrim city in 2014, Modi recalled having said that he “had been called by Ma Ganga”. This project, he said, was the purpose of the invitation.

The previous Samajwadi Party and BSP governments had also mooted the widening of the area around the temple, but couldn’t muster the courage to implement their ideas for fear of a public backlash. But with a strong BJP government in the state and Modi again winning from Varanasi with a huge margin, realisation of the PM’s dream project became easy.

According to Vishal Singh, CEO of the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Trust which is responsible for the corridor project, once completed, it would greatly ease the difficulties of pilgrims. Some one lakh people visit the temple on any given day. The narrow lanes, which are about two feet wide, cannot accommodate the crowd which spills over to the main roads. Absence of toilets, drinking water facilities and eateries make the pilgrimage even more trying. Singh strongly defended the project, calling it “an essential service”. “This is the first time in our history that there is so much focus to improve a Hindu place of worship,” he reportedly said.

Singh told India Legal that the Detailed Project Planning for the project and tender documents were ready and it was for the government to get the approval of the finance committee and the cabinet. “Paving and construction will take time and the project should take about a year and a half to complete,” he said. However, he said the exact area for the project “has been an issue as we have been buying buildings on the go”.

An Ahmedabad-based consultant—HCP Design, Planning and Management Private Limited—has been hired for the corridor project and the blueprint is said to be ready. HCP Limited came to fame after completing the Sabarmati riverfront development project.

The house owners, shop owners and tenants who have been uprooted may have voiced their anger against the BJP and its leaders, but they were neither able to stop Modi from returning to power with a huge majority nor stall the execution of the Kashi corridor project.

The wide corridor may eventually rob Varanasi of its famous and unique galiyaan (lanes), but it certainly won’t turn it into Kyoto. That promise still remains a dream.

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