Understanding Tourist Infrastructures on the Floodplains of Ganga in Banaras
From the Assi Ghat in the holy city Banaras (also known as Kashi), rows of elaborate tents, raised on the far side of the floodplain of the Ganga River, are visible. They are part of a neighborhood known as ‘Tent City,’ a ‘city’ catering to tourists and helping them experience all dimensions of the heritage city Banaras, from its floodplains to the sacred Ganga River that flows flanking the city.
Satellite image of Tent City in Banaras. Source: Google Earth
Healthy floodplains are crucial for maintaining the ecological balance of a river. In particular, they allow a river to expand during floods, accommodating the additional volume of water without harming nearby land and settlements. Local communities practice agriculture on floodplains to earn their livelihoods. Historically, floodplains functioned as open spaces under community ownership, available to everyone. Contemporarily, floodplains of cities are used as a space for private businesses. Regardless of ownership, such endeavors pollute the environment and impact the river ecosystem.
Healthy floodplains are crucial for maintaining the ecological balance of a river
Capitalizing on Spirituality and Heritage
In Banaras one can find small temples almost everywhere, under a tree, on the road, even in between the two steps of a ghat. All are manifestations of the city’s spiritual history. The city’s temples are connected to the Ganga River and play a crucial role in shaping the concept of ‘moksh’ (liberation) in this sacred land.
Apart from its spiritual, heritage and cultural relevance, the Ganga has significance to the locals for earning their livelihoods and visitors here can explore some of these latest development in the city. The newly created Kashi Vishwanath corridor and the development of Tent City on the bank are two such examples. The fact that Tent City aims primarily at generating financial benefits for promoters raises concerns about the prioritization of profit over the preservation of the city’s cultural and spiritual essence. Tent City impacts the ecology of the river, the lives of the residents, and the livelihoods of the local people.
Tourist Infrastructures on the Riverine Plain
In order to guarantee a sound spiritual experience to visitors to Banaras, the physical and chemical qualities of the river have to be maintained. It is natural that changes in or obstructions to the flow of the river or its ecology or its pollution will create doubt in the minds of the faithful regarding its spiritual significance. Considering that floodplains are an innate part of any river’s ecosystem and protecting that space is vital for the survival of a river and the community living along it, more attention needs to be given to the conservation of the Ganga floodplain. In many cities across countries in South Asia, the state itself prohibits encroachment on floodplains and has evicted farmers and slum dwellers from that land. The nature of developments around the Ganga floodplains in Banaras, including the establishment of the Tent City, however, suggests that the state is authorizing the occupation on floodplains for the commercial gains of private businesses.
Tent City. Source: Glory Roy
Tent City: The services
In Tent City, private companies offer accommodations to their guests in tents raised on the floodplains of the Ganga. Tent City is designed so that no common people can access its premises or its once common land. The private enterprises sell the spiritual and cultural aspects of Banaras to the tourists while keeping the image of the city intact. At the gate, almost half a kilometer before one reaches the destination, a guard checks and confirms a visitor’s booking. If a visitor has no booking, then she or he is asked to return and can only gaze at the structure of the tents from outside and imagine the activities within.
The owners claim that the tents cater to spiritual needs of the guests. Non-vegetarian food and alcoholic beverages are banned within the premises. The cost of a tent room ranges from around 5,000 Indian rupees for basic accommodations to 40,000 Indian rupees for more luxurious ones. The sand of the floodplains on which the tents are set up becomes extremely hot in summer. For comfort, then, air conditioning has to be used. The usage of air conditioning not only adds to local emissions but also, because of its proximity to the river, pollutes the surroundings and poses a threat to ecosystems and aquatic life. Food and drinking water for the guests is transported by boat from Assi Ghat or by vehicles passing through villages. Sewage tankers collect and dispose of the human waste that is generated.
Impacts of Tent City
The existence and popularity of Tent City raise legitimate concerns about its impact on the river and its environment. Why would tourists choose to book tents in extremely hot weather in Banaras, and what kind of scenic beauty can one truly enjoy within the confined space of a tent? Unlike, say, a camping experience in Himachal Pradesh, which is cooler, the hot weather in Banaras makes camping unpleasant. In Banaras, these tent infrastructures place an additional burden on the environment, increasing its carbon footprint and levels of pollution. Improper waste management in the city is another complex issue that requires serious attention. The establishment of private enterprises demands a deeper enquiry into their ecological impacts and long-term consequences than occurred for Tent City. Balancing tourism and development with environmental conservation is crucial to ensure the sustainability and health of both the Ganga River and local communities.
Traditional boats Source: Glory Roy A mechanized cruise Source: Glory Roy
Using spirituality as bait to promote private businesses can lead to locals having to make tough choices among Ganga as the holy river and its ecological value and quality find themselves up against new livelihood opportunities for the locals of Banaras. On one hand, in many places, river-front development projects use concretized geometries to establish promenades lined with cafes and fun parks, on the other, there is also a clamor for keeping the river a living entity with its nature and flood plain intact as well as river banks as sites of ablution of the deceased. Spirituality, cultural historicity and Moksh has recently seen the rise of mass tourism, a form of tourism that has changed the Ganga River while creating new livelihood opportunities.
In many places, river-front development projects use concretized geometries
It is important to ask if such developments are environmentally sustainable and who the real beneficiaries are.
In addition to Tent City, the cruise services introduced in the Ganga River in Banaras also requires deeper attention. Cruising has become a source of livelihood for certain individuals in the city but does not offer opportunities for those on the lower socio-economic rungs. These motorized cruises have also resulted in the neglect of traditional manual boat rides offered by local boatmen. The manual systems are no longer considered efficient, and visitors consider them unworthy for social media posts. Locals who once relied on traditional boats for their livelihood now face challenges.
Using the river and its common space to cater to tourists and locals seems to portray Banaras as a city that is glitzy but not inclusive. One of the guards at Tent City opines, “Tent City is not good for our city or our river, but such initiatives give us an opportunity to earn and live well. It remains for five months and then they dismantle the tents. In that duration [the seven months when there is no Tent City], we have to find some other livelihood. People spend money to stay here and we earn a livelihood.”
Enterprises like Tent City, though they claim to be available to everyone, offer services only for that section of society that has the ability to pay for the luxury of the amenities on the premises. In Banaras, these developments have created conditions for local citizens to conform to the phenomenon while taking some advantage provided by tourism as a source of livelihood. For many, the primary aim is to “earn and make a living.”
The aim should be to balance economic, social and ecological needs for a healthy life.
The use of a floodplain for infrastructures leaves a carbon footprint, has environmental impacts and disrupts the riverine ecosystem. The aim should be to balance economic, social and ecological needs for a healthy life. It is crucial to achieve such a balance while safeguarding rivers for future generations. By embracing sustainable practices and fostering a harmonious relationship with rivers, we can ensure a better and brighter future for all.