By Thea Piltzecker

VRINDRAVAN—Mornings at the Yamuna riverbank are crowded affairs; people come to the water to wash, pray, or travel on one of the brightly colored rowboats punting along the shore. But coming to the water means something different than it used to: people walk down a set of stone steps, then across a stretch of mud and sand to meet the river where it flows. The Yamuna has receded severely in recent years, creating a narrow land mass that some see as a real estate opportunity.

Ghats are staircases leading to the water’s edge; in India and elsewhere in South Asia, pilgrims use these steps to pray and bathe. Vrindravan’s ghats are pilgrimage sites, and are important for both religious and secular life. The government has proposed an “expansion, renovation and beautification” project of the riverbank, starting with Kesi Ghat. (Kesi Ghat is revered as the place where the god Krishna bathed after killing the demon Kesi.)

Concrete ghats will replace the old stone stairs and will run along the newly narrowed path of the river. Other proposals include skyscrapers and what the developer is calling the world’s tallest Hindu temple—in fact, this “temple-skyscraper” is currently under construction. The new temple, Vrindravan Chandrodaya Mandir, is part of complex of ISKCON buildings. At 70 stories, it is said to be the tallest and one of the most expensive temples in the world, at a cost of roughly $3 billion US dollars, according to the Indian Economic Times.

The construction plans have been met with opposition from historic conservationists, ecologists, and the Ministry of Environment, which says that no new structures can be built within 200 meters of the riverbank. New structures on the riverbed itself would be both unstable—built on silt—and illegal. That legal protection, however, “has been violated time and time again,” said Jack Hawley, professor of religion at Barnard College. Illegal construction “is now just a part of life in Vrindravan,” he concluded.

Environmental groups like Friends of Vrindravan are concerned that more construction will compound the Yamuna’s high pollution levels. Rather than encouraging riverbank commerce, they contend, the government should focus on purifying the water itself. The city is already straining to provide clean water for its 63,000 inhabitants.

From a political perspective, ecological cleanup plans are a quagmire: expensive, time-consuming, and never quite finished. In the late 1990s, the national government began—but never completed—the Yamuna Action Plan. The project tapered off and the river languished while Uttar Pradesh became one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

In his first term, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his Ganga cleanup program a priority, with mixed results. Much attention was paid to his appointment of Sushri Uma Bharti, as the cabinet minister for water resources. Bharti was seen by her opposition to be acting as a political partisan first, and a water conservator second. But incremental improvements in the water quality has emboldened Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who used the Ganga project as a talking point in their recent sweep of the Uttar Pradesh elections.

Given the logistical challenges of ecological improvements, economic revitalization plans may seem more politically appealing. Modi touted his riverbank cleanup in his hometown of Ahmedabad as “one of the most innovative projects in the world,” but critics say that the process effectively broke the city off from the Sabarmati river, for better or worse. Now a concrete barrier stands high above the river, turning the area into something closer to an industrial canal. A carefully manicured park perches atop the concrete, and real estate prices are climbing. There are no rowboats in the water, and, at least downtown, it is impossible to get to the river’s edge to walk, sunbathe or pray.

Waterfront development is nothing new in urban planning circles; perceived economic progress often hinges on a “development hub” close to a body of water. But the context of the sacred Yamuna—in particular, the ghats—complicates developers’ plans.

Hawley said that, on the surface, the new ghat plan “has all the sanction of history” because of the stairs’ long association with the sacred Yamuna. But he said that the call to come to the new and improved ghats is less appealing, even to religious Hindus. “No one will go in, because of the pollution,” he said. Hawley worries that that combination of commerce and pollution will fundamentally alter the sacred nature of the river.

Looking out at the river from his ashram, Srivatsa Gowswami agreed. The guru is a longtime environmental activist and founder of Friends of Vrindravan, and he sees the construction as a tear in the fabric of Indian society.

“The economic community has lost their focus,” he said. Unfortunately, he continued, this shift in priorities means “the disaster is Vrindravan.”