VISHAL SINGH, the chief executive officer of the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Trust in Varanasi, is a man in a hurry to modernise the Kashi Vishwanath temple area. He wants to construct a tree-lined avenue, replete with amenities for pilgrims and tourists, from the bank of the Ganga to the Vishwanath temple. Nothing can stand in his way, whether it is a house or a temple or even a heritage building that finds mention in the Hindu religious text Skanda Purana .
“Kashi Vishwanth Gali [street] has become a low-cost urban chawl . I am not demolishing any temple or heritage building, I am only liberating the Vishwanath temple from unauthorised encroachments. Any temple or heritage building that is being demolished in the process will be reconstructed as exact replicas [of the original structures],” he said in an interview to Frontline . Excerpts:
The project has caused a lot of anguish among people whose houses/temples are being demolished. People are also upset that some heritage buildings, which are an integral part of the Kashi culture, are also being demolished. What do you have to say to this? Is the project likely to be delayed because of the concerns raised by the local people?
Ás you may have already seen, the work is on in full swing and nothing can delay it now. My target is to finish all acquisitions by December  and finish the major part of the project by December 2019. This will not be difficult because there is not much civil construction to be done. The majority of the work consists of removing encroachments in the form of houses that line the lane leading to the temple and clutter the area, widening the lanes and creating civic amenities.
But people are also upset that temples and heritage buildings are being demolished. Does this not amount to destroying the very essence of Kashi?
We are not demolishing any temple. We have only removed the ones that came in the way of avenue construction. The statues removed from these temples have been kept safely. We will replicate these temples with the help of archaeologists. What people call temples are actually those that were built inside the houses by shebaits [caretakers] when the legal owners left the property in their care. There are around 35-40 such temples inside houses. These are actually encroachments and we will remove them. True, there are some very beautiful buildings that are centuries old; we will preserve them. There are 43 actual temples that will be relocated and rebuilt. The main hurdle is posed by those who are legally [as tenants] or illegally occupying houses whose legal owners have left and have turned them into shops or other commercial establishments. We are not going to forcibly throw them out. For shops that are demolished, we will give shops. We will give adequate compensation to legal owners of houses. We will ensure proper rehabilitation of all those who are affected.
People have joined hands with religious figures to oppose the project.
There is no credible opposition to the project. If any, those are politically motivated. To be honest, why should there be any opposition? We are not doing anything illegal. The idea is to clear the path leading to the temple from the Ganga ghat, remove dwelling units that are encroaching on this path and provide some amenities to devotees. It is quite pathetic that although people have to stand in a queue for hours for darshan, there is not a single place for them to sit and rest. There is not a single toilet in the area. Imagine a diabetic patient visiting the temple for darshan. Where does he go if he needs to use the toilet? The area today resembles a low-cost urban chawl . There are times when the place becomes so crowded that it is difficult to even breathe properly. We are only trying to create breathing spaces. The place needs to have spaces that can absorb the pressure of people visiting the shrine. I mean, how can anybody have any objection if we create a complex of temples nestled in a beautiful, tree-lined avenue, with pretty lights, benches to sit on, restrooms, walkways, all this overlooking the majestic river. As for the heritage buildings, we will enlist the help of archaeologists who will recreate these buildings in exactly similar design as mentioned in the Kashi khand of SkandaPurana . The opposition you see today is just natural resistance to any change.
Do you have a blueprint of the project?
We don’t have a blueprint yet, but it will be a 1,200-metre-long, 40-metre-wide corridor from the Ganga ghat to the temple, with features that I mentioned earlier. Once completed, it will be the envy of all and the pride of Varanasi. The design specifications of the project are being finalised. By the time the acquisition work is completed , we will have everything ready.