The Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government in Uttar Pradesh deserves to be lauded for its ostensible zeal to transform Ayodhya into a hub of tourism.
Ayodhya, with its ancient and multi-religious history and decent connectivity with most places in the country, is well-suited to emerge as a centre of pilgrimage and religious tourism. It is already a major provincial pilgrimage centre and its annual fairs attract tens of thousands of devouts from the neighbouring districts.
However, to design a strategy for Ayodhya’s promotion, the government must first conduct a thorough survey of the temple town. But, for now, the government itself is clueless.
In response to an RTI query filed by Gangaram Nishad, a Faizabad-based lawyer, the assistant municipal commissioner of Ayodhya Municipal Corporation stated that the government has no data on the number of pilgrims who participated in the three annual fairs in 2016.
Local newspapers, however, routinely publish reports of "lakhs of crowds" converging on Ayodhya during each of the three big fairs. We are also told that "every house in the town is a temple".
That may well be true, but then the government’s own figures contradict this. According to the Municipal Corporation of Ayodhya, there are only 101 temples in Ayodhya. This number excludes the vast majority of houses that also function as temples. After temples, Ayodhya abounds in mosques. Despite the attempts by Sangh Parivar outfits to convert Ayodhya into a "Hindu Vatican", at least 45 mosques and several graveyards survive in Ayodhya, several of them located in the oldest parts of the town.
The unregulated pilgrim bazaar
The government may not have the precise number of pilgrims visiting Ayodhya, however, according to some media reports published two years ago, the total annual footfall in Ayodhya was 1.43 crore. Most of these pilgrims stay in temple-houses by paying a certain amount in "donation".
According to the government’s Census of 2011, there are around 7,000 houses in Ayodhya, and at least two-thirds of them also function as "temples". Those who cannot afford the "donation", camp out in the open and defecate by the banks of the Sarayu or wherever they are able to find open spaces. Unsurprisingly, every year cases of water-borne infections shoot up in the days following the fairs.
The state of civic infrastructure in Ayodhya is deplorable, a fact echoed by media reports. Now, this has also been confirmed by the government’s own data. For a town that is sought to be portrayed as the geo-cultural hub of devotees of lord Rama, the number of facilities for pilgrims is abysmally low.
There are only five hospitals, 45 guest houses/lodges, 59 public toilets and nearly 2,000 water points, according to the government’s response to Nishad’s query asking for details of the number of lodges, guest houses, hospitals, public toilets and drinking water facilities.
For a town whose floating population far exceeds its actual population of nearly 56,000 people, the statistics reveal a saga of continuous neglect.
This becomes even more ironical in present times when there is a BJP government both at the Centre and in the state. It is after all the BJP that has reaped the fruits of using the "Ram temple issue" to galvanise Hindus into a votebank.
Seen against the backdrop of such apathy towards civic issues, the announcement to construct a 100-metre tall state of lord Rama sounds like yet another gimmick by the Yogi government.
"Instead of constructing the Ram temple, politicians have announced the construction of every other building - from museum to statue. But what we want is the Ram temple, not this statue," said a young monk affiliated to the Hanumangarhi temple.
Mahant Satyendra Das, head priest of the makeshift temple at the disputed Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid site, believes this is a failure of politics in resolving the dispute.
"When the actual problem is in my heart, why are you giving me medicine for skin allergy? When the main issue is that of Ram temple, there is no point in making such irrelevant announcements to mislead the people," he said.
Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath performs puja rituals at Saryu river during a visit to Ayodhya earlier this year. (Credit: PTI photo)
As with everything about this town, the announcement of the construction of a statue of lord Rama by chief minister Yogi too has divided the people. Many believe that a gigantic statue of Rama will attract both domestic and international tourists.
A well-heeled young businessman, Ashok Sahu, thinks that this would pave the way for a Ram temple. “Should nothing else be done till the Ram temple issue is resolved? I believe that we should continue to develop Ayodhya in other ways. And, a massive statue would naturally attract lakhs of Hindus both from India and abroad. Like people go to Paris to see the Eiffel tower, people will come to Ayodhya to see the lord Rama statue”, he said.
The Uttar Pradesh government has certainly been responsive to the expectations of its supporters. Since becoming the chief minister in March this year, the saffron-clad Yogi Adityanath has made two visits to Ayodhya amid loud sloganeering of "mandir wahin banayenge (we will build the temple there itself)".
For the upcoming Diwali festival too, the chief minister, who has a reputation for being a tough taskmaster, has ordered his ministerial colleagues to be present in Ayodhya. The plan is to light the streets and homes of Ayodhya to make it look as beautiful as neighbouring Varanasi, known for its spellbinding evening aartis or prayer rituals.
Also, giving the exercise a touch of mytho-historical politics, the stated goal of this Diwali plan is to replicate the "glory of Ayodhya when lord Rama returned from Lanka after the 14-year exile".
However, given the government’s own data on Ayodhya’s infrastructure, such lofty statements evoke only derision and cynicism from the town’s people who are inured to unkept promises by governments over the years.