VARANASI: At around 5 pm, as the sun sets for early winter twilight, melodious hymns from Ramacharit Manas play on the ramp and footsteps of this 8th century ghat near Malviya Bridge, overlooked by bold, textured Gabion walls and quiet Ganga on either side.
The newly set-up Gabion walls are a metal mesh cage filled with stones. Architects across the world prize these walls for rugged and outdoor aesthetics as well as superior strength and permeability.
Soon, the three gazebos that stand where footsteps end, turn red, green, burnt orange and then settle for a sober pink.
There is spring in the steps of officials Durgesh Yadav, Gauri Shankar, Puneet Pandey and Dr D Vasudevan as they walk down the steps to the ghat for their final daily inspection. Their expressions reflect pride and contentment as they watch the visitors go gaga over the sight before them. Looking at the site, no one can imagine that this place was once a stinking dump yard for trash.
“Welcome to Khirkiya Ghat,” Yadav, project manager and Engineer, Engineers India Limited (EIL), calls out to The New Indian by the way of greeting.
“You are standing on the modern day marvel that has been constructed jointly by Indian Oil Limited (IOL) and EIL with floating jetties. These Gabion walls, made with the new technology used for riverfront with stones, have been brought in from Chunar in Mirzapur to create an ancient look. The open air theatre (OAT) with capacity of 500 people, the stone-sitting benches, the floating jetty, the platform with ramp are only some of the features that have been introduced on the 450 metres of this Ghat,” he shares, visibly satisfied by the excitement among the visitors.
The project is worth Rs 33 crore under the CSR aid of IOL and EIL, whose workers have put in hard toil to materialise Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream of turning Varanasi into a global destination.
Varanasi Smart City Limited (VSCL), the nodal agency for overall management, is responsible for the makeover of Varanasi. Then Union petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan had brought in IOL and GAIL for this project. Last week, incumbent petroleum minister Hardeep Puri also came to inspect the site and functioning of the CNG station.
“This ghat would help decongest the traffic and make up for an attractive water transport mode. A 44-km ring road has already been established,” says Dr Vasudevan, GM, VSCL. Vasudevan’s colleague, Puneet Pandey, is even more ecstatic. ”Under smart city plan, we already have a trade facilitation centre, four spanking new parking slots including a semi-automatic facility for two-wheelers, besides this,” says Pandey, as he shares details on the Rs 8,000-crore development projects.
From boatmen to priests, students and families, vloggers and honeymooners, they all want their share of the sundown at this spot. The new Khirkiya Ghat has four promenades, each at water level of 72 m, 70m, 68 m and 66 mm, each over looking Ganga with flight of steps, decorated with LED-lights.
“Not many know that it’s here at this new Khirkiya Ghat that the PM landed ten days ago to board the cruise and travel 7 km by water to reach Kashi Vishwanath Corridor. Unke aane se our ghat ban ne se naanv walo ka kamai shuru ho gaya (The income for us started after the ghat’s construction and PM’s arrival here), quips Bharat Sahni, a 21-year-old boatman, who comes from prominent Mallah, an OBC community.
Sahni has been making Rs 350/day as against Rs 50/day earlier.
More than 250-odd boats have been converted into CNG, making it an eco-friendly ghat. Overall, 1700 boats ply here.
The first-ever CNG station of Varanasi, that has been developed by GAIL and stands next to the Ghat, is a sight to behold. With murals of Lord Shiva, the favourite deity of Varanasi, his trinity, eyes, boatmen, adorning the walls, the station is a sight to behold.
“Three agencies including Divya, Gelolite and Ecofuel are helping us convert the diesel boats into CNG ones, besides Macon. We have five CNG dispensers installed at our floating jetty that adjust to water level. Each dispenser can refuel two boats at a time, depending up to 10, 20 and 30 kgs. We can sell up to 10,000 kg of CNG in 24 hours,” says Gaurishanker Mishra, deputy general (city gas distribution in charge), Varanasi, who supervises the Khirkiya Ghat CNG station.
As tens of LED-powered moving heads, with 360-degrees motorised zoom continuously make rotating honeycomb light effects with beams, screams of joy can be heard from those among the audience. Bunch of girls can be seen giggling as they strike funny poses while taking ‘selfies’ with their friends. Their parents prefer to walk down the ramp to snack-sellers.
“Earlier, there was only sand. Now it’s a site for recreation for kids and space for meditation and peace for elders like me,” says Manju, a Varanasi local, who is here with six women members of her family.
“I have been coming to this ghat for the last three days. I sell gram-peas, peanuts, snacks made out of gram flour and sweet delicacies. It’s good to find jobs where both young and old come. No other government has done so much in 60 years as much BJP has done to make Varanasi a pride of India,” says Vishwanath Ram, a snack-seller who comes from Kewat, (non-Yadav OBC) community.
There are those who have arrived from neighbouring Mirzapur and Ghazipur too.
“I came here from Padao Bahadur in Chandauli just to see this ancient ghat. We women also wish to explore life outside our small districts and see how UP is developing. Let me tell you not only I will vote for PM Narendra Modi and will ensure the entire UP votes for this man. Akhilesh ke aane se gunda log wapis nahi chahiye (We don’t want the rule of the goons that will happen if Akhilesh comes). I tell all my kids, daughters to not support Samajwadi Party for the fear of goons. We want Modi and Yogi to be back as our leaders,” says Rinki Seth, as she takes a stroll on the ghat.
“We always used to go to Raj Ghat. I have just arrived from Mughal Sarai. We had no other source of entertainment in the evening,” says Gyanendra Kumar Patel, health and personal care product salesman.
Hundreds of Muslim weavers and women, after their absorbing work in afternoon on looms, file in at neighbouring Lal Khan tomb. “Last when I came here, the construction was in progress. Kaam to ho raha hai, sab log yahi chahte the (work is happening, this is what people wanted),” says Akhtar Alam, a weaver from Varanasi’s Rasoolpura. He has come with his wife Saina and son Kabir.
The ghat will soon be extended to 1.5 km in length, making it the longest so far in Varanasi. It will be joined to Adi Keshav Ghat, which stands first among the 88 ghats overall in Varanasi.
“You can see for yourself that it is a state-of-the-art ghat that has all facilities that modern life requires but in keeping with the traditions preserved over centuries at all other ghats. This is the only ghat which will have ramp access where cars and other vehicles can reach directly. Similarly, old and disabled people can reach the ghat directly making use of these ramps. There is a food plaza here as well as plenty of toilets,” Varanasi divisional commissioner Deepak Agarwal tells The New Indian.
Aggarwal says that traffic woes of Varanasi are now becoming a thing of the past with such water and road routes.
“All traffic that used to come from Prayagraj, via Mohan Sarai, is now diverted to Raja Talab and Harua with a new 44-km ring road. NH 56 that connects Varanasi to Lucknow is being upgraded. NH 233 that will help connectivity to Ghazipur. We are also starting two more landmark connections just like Babatpur Airport to the city, we are building two more four-lane roads: Mohan Sarai to Lehar Tara and Gopiganj in Varanasi to Bhadohi and Mirzapur. This is completely a state government project” he said.
Clearly, there is a change in the making at Varanasi, and the change is visible for all to see.