The last few decades have seen those in charge of urban affairs in India seeking to transform cities in line with a particular foreign model. Bangalore was supposed to become a Singapore and Mumbai a Shanghai. It is no surprise then that Kyoto with its mix of ancient tradition and modernity is to be the model for Varanasi.

From the limited information made available on the MoU signed during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Japan, the entire exercise still seems to be in the planning-to-plan stage. It may then be a good time to see whether Varanasi has any lessons to learn from other Indian cities that have tried to follow foreign models.

The search for foreign inspiration would appear natural enough given the crises in Indian cities. Even as these urban spaces aspire for modernity, they remain far from finding solutions to such basic problems as water, sanitation and housing. Quick visits abroad to cities that have clearly done a far better job handling the basic issues have almost inevitably led to a demand for recreating those cities from the resources available in urban India.

Copying the systems and practices of cities from elsewhere in the world is however proving to be quite difficult. And the experience of several Indian cities that have followed this route tell us why this is so.

Bowled over by glamour

Typically, those in charge of the Indian end of the exercise first pick the elements of the foreign city that most appeal to them. The focus on these world class elements, more often than not, leads to expensive and glamorous infrastructure projects being imposed on parts of the Indian city. New airports and huge flyovers are particularly popular picks.

While these projects do provide modern images, integrating them into the economic dynamics of the city is not always easy. Sooner or later urban policymakers have to face the question of who will pay for them. Governments like to pretend they are meeting the entire cost of these projects.

But the fact remains that when they divert substantial public resources to these glamorous projects they are necessarily reducing the amount they could spend on other projects. And the search for glamour has often gained precedence over more basic infrastructure like urban water supply.

We could ignore these priorities on the debatable grounds that this is what the urban Indian wants. But as the urban Indian wants more such projects, cities have found themselves moving towards models built around the principle that the user must pay.

As the costs of living go up so does pressure on wages. This soon results in these cities losing their economic competitiveness. And once cities are no longer a viable destination for several economic activities, they lose their momentum.

A tricky trap

The nature of Varanasi makes the risks of falling into this trap even greater. As a centre of pilgrimage it has a large floating population. This contributes to the lack of commitment to the city, which is reflected in the utter disregard for cleanliness.

It could be argued that the large number of visitors can also be seen as tourist potential. But unlike other tourist centres Varanasi attracts people, particularly Hindus, of all economic classes. The ability of some of them to meet the higher economic costs that infrastructure development places on them will be very limited. If pilgrims committed to visiting Varanasi find themselves being excluded by economic barriers, they can be expected to find ways of breaking those barriers. And some of these ways, such as misusing public areas, can worsen rather than improve the state of urban decay in Varanasi.

Focus on the here

It is important then that Varanasi does not get too preoccupied with the success Kyoto has achieved. It would do well to remember that Kyoto was for a thousand years the capital of what remains one of the major economic powers in the world. It can clearly afford infrastructure that Varanasi may not be able to pay for.

The Indian pilgrimage centre would need to stay focused on what its immediate challenges are. Once it is able to identify these problems it would be in a position to see if the experience of Kyoto has any cost-effective solutions to offer. It is critical that Varanasi keeps its focus on what it needs rather than get carried away by Kyoto’s most glamorous successes.

Kyoto may not have the answer to all Varanasi’s problems at a price the ancient Indian city can afford. However, we should look for any cost effective solutions the Japanese city may have to offer.

But what is more important is to build a civic consciousness within Varanasi that unites the city in recognising the challenges it faces, and hence makes the most efficient use of any financial and knowledge support it may receive.

The writer is a professor at the School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore