Land prices have shot up by 20% in Varanasi in the 30 days since Narendra Modi became prime minister of India and chose to represent Varanasi in the Lok Sabha instead of Vadodara. Expectations are running high that the first budget of the Modi government will come with a special component for Varanasi that will be a game-changer.
"My son has just returned from Delhi and he says lots of big builders are planning to buy chunks of land in Varanasi," said Ashok Kapoor, past chairman of the Indo-American chamber of commerce, UP branch, and promoter of the Banaras Utsav. "It will happen, these builders are betting on Modi."
Till a couple of months ago, Kapoor was a sceptic. Not that he has suddenly turned friend of Modi, but he's not foe either. With friends in the Congress and the Samajwadi Party, Kapur says it will help if Modi works with the state government to develop eastern UP. He says building infrastructure is Modi's biggest challenge.
But Modi is already in the know of that. Modi's close confidant and trusted officer from his days in Gujarat, A K Sharma, responsible for the infra-structural transformation of Gujarat during Modi's two tenures as Gujarat CM, is now joint secretary in the PMO and PM's pointsman in Varanasi, given the task to oversee the development of the VVIP constituency keeping in mind the PM's vision.
Sharma was on a three-day visit to Banaras a week ago and he held several meetings with key officials in the local administration, as well as those in Lucknow. Sharma and other officials are working on a blueprint for the development of Varanasi and eastern UP.
"Three things have happened in the last one month since Modi became PM. One, Varanasi mayor Ramgopal Mohale, who is also a BJP man, went to Delhi and met the PM. He went with his three-point 'Kashi vision'. One, set up a NIFT in Varanasi, a metro and a Sangeet Academy," said a source in the local unit of the BJP.
But that's only partial truth. The NIFT, metro and Sangeet Academy are, of course, part of the plan but Modi, true to character, is not relying solely on politicians to realise his vision. A K Sharma is the "unofficial" representative of the PM, and he belongs to Mau, in eastern Uttar Pradesh, which makes him crucial to Modi's plans for Varanasi and eastern UP. Sharma's immediate focus is on "infrastructure", roads and bridges et al, which will bring in the big private players in real estate flocking to Varanasi.
Again, four days ago another top bureaucrat from Delhi was in Varanasi, urban development secretary Sudhir Krishna, who over three days held a series of meetings with officials on various issues plaguing Varanasi. "He met officials from the district adminstration, from the Varanasi Development Authority and from the Municipal Corpotration," said a source. "He spoke of one umbrella under which all issues will be taken and worked out. He spoke of metro and mono rail for Varanasi and he spoke about the research and analysis required."
Krishna is said to have stressed on a "scientific transformation" of the "oldest living city in the world", and of the restrictions that come with the tag. "He said sections of the old city should be traffic free and 'walking tourism' should be promoted in these parts of the city. He also discussed solid waste management with officials and of Modi's plans for the Ganga," said the source.
Incidentally, the Centre has already released Rs 18 crore for cleaning up the famed ghats of Ganga. The money was sanctioned by the UPA government but was never released. Now, the Modi government is taking credit for it, as it should, said a journalist, covering the 'Ganga beat'.
"Modi is most aware of Ganga. Out of its total 2,525km course, the Ganga travels 25km in Varanasi. Modi has sworn to clean Ganga and we bellieve him," said local businessman Prabhat Kumar Jaiswal, with interests in real estate, hotels, textiles (which he exports) and liquor.
As for real-estate, prices were already on the rise after Modi named himself candidate from Varanasi but now with expectations that Modi will give a special package (even special status) in the budget to Varanasi, real-estate prices have risen by at least 20%. Land prices along the Lal Bahadur Shastri International Airport shot up after the airport was declared an international airport recently. Then, Amul announced to set up a factory in Varanasi and that added to bull sentiment. Real estate prices have also been rising in areas like Ramnagar, Jaunpur Road and along the Allahabad highway. Everybody is waiting for the big Modi bonanza.
Expectations are not just hinging on real estate. There are other "dreams and visions", such as of Varanasi becoming an "education hub", of private universities trooping in to set up shop in Modi's constituency and of healthcare groups like Apollo and Fortis making forays into the "city of the laidback" to turn it into one a city for cures. Then there's tourism, Varanasi's game-changer for a long time. Modi is also thinking of turning Varanasi into an international Buddhist attraction, part of the "Buddhist Circuit" for pilgrims.
All this and more are embedded in the expectations of the people of Varanasi, the prime minister's constituency. The biggest problem, as identified by Sudhir Krishna, is a total lack of coordination between stakeholders, especially between state and Centre, something which Modi wants to change and has started in his own quiet way. Now, it's "Sarkar Hamaari, PM Hamaari, Constituency Hamaari," said Jaiswal, "We're all in Modi's mind. At least we hope so."
The Budget will tell whether he's right or wrong.