Kautilya Society, Varanasi: a boon or menace?

via HostelWorld

via HostelWorld

In October 2011, Kautilya Society helped us set up our first base in Varanasi. They gave us 50% discount on accommodation and food in return for organizing cultural activities on the rooftop cafe. This helped Espirito Kashi sustain itself. There have been controversies against the existence of this civil society, providing accommodation services in Varanasi and also advocating for the protection of the heritage sites in the times when beautiful traditional spaces are being transformed into hotels or are being demolished to make way for fancy looking buildings. The society fights for the implementation of the already existing laws that prohibits any new constructions on the Ghats of Varanasi. At the same, Kautilya Society runs like a homely guest house, which provides accomodation and other services to it’s guests (once you become members). They hope to promote cultural dialogue through this. And there is a rooftop cafe, where members can enjoy coffee and snacks.

It is important to understand why such a civil society is being hated by the public in Varanasi. As far as the traders, politicians and shiv sena is concerned, it is obvious that they have no interest or knowledge about the heritage of Varanasi and are in it for the immense profitable possibilities. But the local people in the neighborhood of the Kautilya Society, also disapprove of the activities performed by the society. Upon interactions with the locals, we found that their concerns are about the hookah cafe that runs on the rooftop and the manager (also the society’s Treasurer) who has been accused time and again for allowing and participating in gambling in the cafe during off seasons. The management is usually out of Varanasi for their other projects. During our documentary screening sessions, we noticed signs of such shady activities over card games, but that stopped when management returned back to Ram Bhawan (Kautilya Society’s residence in Varanasi). The management of the society was completely oblivious to it and preferred keeping silent about it, even when we informed them about the same. The local people were worried about their children who often visited the place and were developing gambling habits. We all know how word of mouth flies within the narrow lanes of Varanasi, much faster, when it’s about such cases. And why not? A certain disconnect was felt in the vichaar dhaara  and eventually, we moved out.

These people in the locality are also unaware of the real objectives of the Kautilya Society: Heritage Protection and Awareness. To them, it is a guest house in the corner, competing with other small guest houses in the area.  A few who know about the society’s intentions are unsure if it possible to protect these structures. Since, these structures are not museums like in Europe but they are homes, people live in these buildings. Some of these structures are in need of immediate renovation. People are in a constant state of risk in these buildings and to refurbish these structures according to the existing law can be an expensive affair. In order to earn easy money, and by capitalizing on the number of tourists visiting Varanasi, they prefer transforming their traditional structure into a guest house. Therefore, we will need a civil society in Varanasi which has the potential to reach the root cause of the problem and find a balanced solution. Kautilya Society could also collaborate with an organization who works with Heritage Architecture and provide alternative and effective solutions.

In response to the procession (organized by Shiv Sena and found support from local traders, politicians and people) that took place a few days back against the society near the ghats of Varanasi, Kautilya Society published an interview with Vrinda Dar as a response to the procession (attached below).  Here, we have a case of a civil society fighting for heritage and culture protection and it has no support at all, neither from the from the local public or from the state and let’s forget about the private players. This is rather strange.

Referring to Vrinda’s interview, “We must change with time, understand the role of ngo in a society”. Similarly, an ambitious NGO like Kautilya Society must also change its way rather innovatively, that corresponds with the current needs of the people who live in these structures, who cannot afford to refurbish according to these existing laws. Unless, the society’s aspirations are not only limited to making sure the state is following the laws or to maintain it’s status quo in Varanasi, I reckon, the team should have much more interaction with the local people, who are really facing the burden of this situation from both sides. Because, in these hard times, society’s members who are mostly tourists, will not come to the rescue. The locals would have the solutions. Like you said, we need a participatory approach to this. In this case participation must be from these people, to whom, the heritage belongs.

Vrinda Dar, the director of the society, is an encouraging personality, who loves Varanasi, for the same reasons we all do. I have always enjoyed her insight about heritage protection and about other issues that affect the society. In this video, we see Vrinda criticizing the state and the local community for not being able to understand the role of an NGO in a society and for the subtle violence that she faces in the Indian society for being a strong woman who would like to bring influential changes.  She speaks from the heart all throughout, no doubt.

[Update: a facebook conversation about the same topic]

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8 Comments

  1. seelenstreuner says:

    I stayed in Ram Bhawan last year.
    It was one of my best stays in India.
    I experienced a very homely atmosphere there.
    My stay unfortunately was very short, so on the problems mentioned in the article I cannot comment.
    But I am convinced Kautilya Society is doing real praiseworthy work in Varanasi.
    It would be a shame if Varanasi’s heritage would be destroyed by commercial interests.

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    • You are right, it’s truly a home. However, in this case of heritage protection laws, we will need alternative solutions and not just conflict of interests. We run a risk of loosing the heritage without anyone to blame (other than capitalism) OR we would keep hearing about the collapse of old buildings and people dying.

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  2. I am so happy to see the development of such debate ! It is very good that there is a community discussion about heritage protection. Vrinda cannot do it all by herself. She can ask the court to stop illegalities, but it has to be the whole community that proposes new laws and new ways to implement them that keep a balance between protection and development. Laws need to be changed, but changed for all in a fair and participated manner. What happens now is that the same “public” officers who impose laws on the small businesses “close their eyes” in front of the big businesses. This is not the way to create a participated approach to sustainable development! The last order of the Allahabad court is forcing the Local Administration to create a Heritage Committee, but the Government is proposing only Public Authorities plus a single NGO that is now managed as family branch by a local big hotel owner has continued to built illegal constructions in the heritage zone and continued to get special (illegal) permissions to get around the laws. Vrinda is proposing now that many civil society associations are called to participate to this Committee. Take a stand! Get on board. Make your voice heard! It is time. Kautilya Society members should not leave Vrinda alone. Civil Society of Varanasi should not leave Kautilya Society alone. Solutions cannot be imposed “top down”. We need participation ! We need presence. We also need debate and disagreements. But in honest manner. Let’s contrast harassment and illegality and malignant rumors!

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    • all that about taking a stand and getting involved must make sense, heritage preservation cannot be ignored. Refering to Vrinda: we must change with time, understand the role of ngo in a society. similarly, an ambitious ngo like yours must also change its way rather innovatively, that corresponds with the current needs of the people who live in these structures, who cannot afford to refurbish according to these existing laws. I completely agree with you about the corruption levels, and decision making from top to down. But that’s no reason, to forget you don’t have local support at all, other than a few traditionalists, as Vrinda mentions. Unless, your society’s aspirations are not only limited to making sure the state is following the laws, I reckon, your team should have much more interaction with the local people, who are really facing the burden of this situation from both sides. Because, in these hard times, society’s members who are mostly tourists, will not come to your rescue. You will need local support. Indeed, I must not try to teach this to your team of peace making and peace studying people. I am in full support to your society’s intentions, just suggesting a wee bit innovative change of course, a little more investigation and an authentic attempt towards building good relations with those who live around you in Varanasi, who don’t even understand what Kautilya Society stands for, other than what Balaji mentioned. They will have the real solutions. Like you said, we need a participatory approach to this. In this case participation must be from these people, to whom, the heritage belongs.

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  3. I have done a couple of posts on the many old buildings of Kasi, one of which already demolished. May concerns overlap with the Kautilya’s. I wish them luck and hope they succeed.

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  4. Jai says:

    Looks like a fruitful discussion. As I understand it some of the main concerns from the hoteliers these days are that Kautilya Society operates as a hotel when it is not a hotel. This seems to have united the local hotels and resturants, that are illegally constructed or built up near the riverside, against Kautilya. Certainly there needs to be some private discussion and public forums organized to get to the bottom of these claims and frustrations. Perhaps also Kautilya needs to rethink how it can serve both the heritage of the riverside buildings and serve the people associated with those buildings if such animosity is being generated. It is a tricky issue as corruption and back door deals on the part of those operating in illegal structures are one problem but also the growth of the city and ability to work and feed families are another issue that needs to be taken seriously, as all staff in those places are not aware of all the issues and are just ‘working’ to pay bills… they will certainly be incited against kautilya and many are local residents.

    Having been a tourist in the past and stayed in YMCA and YWCA in Calcutta it is my understanding that they are also a club where membership is needed for residence, yet it seems to operate as a hotel. IF YWCA or YMCA is not illegal then what is the confusion in this area about Kautilya?

    Personally I support both Kautilyas efforts, activities and goals. I also support local hotels and their desire to do business… I find parties on both sides, from owners to staff, to be concerned, frustrated and just as human in ambition and hopes for the future.

    I am also a PIO card holding businessman (and a foreigner!) who has tried to make a living in Varanasi… similar to many NRI businessmen and women who work in my country and are regularly given high praise in Indian press, but I find that there is a lack of synergy and reciprocal attitudes by those working in the hotel, tour and travel business about that! Certainly there must be a way forward!

    Jeremy – varanasiwalks.com

    P.S. Where is that conversation on Facebook? Is it public? Can you give the link?

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  1. […] “Kautilya Society, Varanasi:a boon or a menace?” — Espirito Kashi, October 26, 2013 […]

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