Prof Enrico Fasana was Professor of Indian History in the University of Trieste, Italy. Gave us this interview for the first (paper) edition of Varanasi Biradari in 2001. Unfortunately he is no longer with us. But his words continue to be current. We decided to share the article again and re-print it in the blog
Question: What is your opinion about the new trend of constructing hotels along the Ghats of Varanasi?
Let me start by expressing what I consider to be most important.
I strongly feel, like many other of my colleagues and the citizens of the world, that India has a responsibility towards the world and towards herself to develop in harmony with her spiritual and cultural identity. Varanasi is a universal heritage city and not just for urban Indian or foreign tourists. To betray Varanasi sand permit its cultural, environmental and social decadence or unsustained commercial exploitation of its unique heritage resources would be a betrayal to tradition and to our future generations.
The development of tourism in India surely has vast economic potentials but selling out for short-term gains will lead to only the long term loss of her social and cultural identity. To render such development sustainable, it is indispensable that the traditional approach to tourism be continued; a tourism that is in organic harmony with the existing social and physical structure of towns. Utilising huge financial resources to unbalance the existing harmony is unsustainable.
Religious tourism in Varanasi has given to the city, for centuries, enormous economic benefits while maintaining the development of spiritual, philosophical and artistic knowledge. Temples, royal palaces, and ashrams have been the focal points for such tourism.
Foreign tourism interested in observing such traditions was begun by the British. It developed outside the cultural and religious centers of towns, usually in the cantonment areas. These too have contributed to increasing the wealth of the area and to the success of large chains of hotels like the Clarks, Taj, etc. However, utilising these models to unsettle existing patterns of hospitality and tourism is dangerous for the tourism industry itself.
Do you think that construction of hotels could be one way of financing the conservation of old palaces and structures along the ghats?
I don’t think that construction of large hotels is the sustainable solution. Large chains of hotels usually bring their own personnel, managers, shops, etc and employ the local labour only as the lower staff. They don’t use the local boatmen, local shops, brahmins, masseurs, etc. and their luxury tourists don’t venture out to see tiny and congested lanes which are the beauty of a town like Varanasi.
This not only has a negative economic impact on the local people but also contributes to killing local jobs and sustained employment patterns. It burdens the local carrying capacity in water and electricity usage, pollutes the already congested areas with CFCs from air conditioners and poisonous fumes and noise from generators.
Ashrams, maths and small guest houses are undoubtedly much more integrated and in harmony with the existing social, religious and cultural dynamics of the town, the ghats and the river.
Hotels should be the last resort of any development plan along the ghats of Varanasi. Towns like Puri, Haridwar, etc. are already facing the invasion of such hotels and their unsustained presence, both culturally and physically. The construction of only those hotels- small or medium sized- must be permitted that leave totally undisturbed the human and physical environment surrounding it. Such economic initiatives must not be dictated by large economic interests but must follow de-centralised patterns. They must emerge from the grass roots, from within the local environment, the mohalla. True democracy always emerges from the roots and is the only kind culturally and socially viable in the long run.
This is what really the Mahatma Gandhi advocated in his philosophy of Khadi and Swadeshi. His was an approach to contribute to the global culture by preserving local identities.
Varanasi holds a sublime place in Indian consciousness. What is done in this city will be an example for the rest of the nation. Will India decide to respect her soul and find an original solution to the need for development or will she simply acquiesce to global patterns?