The Global Urbanist

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Will small religious towns in India like Omkareshwar find a way to alleviate infrastructure deficits?

With tourism on top of the agenda of the new government of India, Chandan Chawla captures a glimpse of the infrastructure deficit in the religious town of Omkareshwar. While national and state tourism schemes will benefit limited destinations of utmost importance for India, small towns like Omkareshwar will have to look at alternative possibilities to alleviate infrastructure deficits.

Chandan Chawla

Chandan Chawla


Topics: Integrated planning, Roads and traffic, Land, Water, waste and sanitation, Special events, City politics, City finances, Urban economics, Place promotion, Sustainability, Arts and culture, Environmental impacts, Architecture and urban design

Holy dip and salvation

Omkareshwar, a small statutory town — population 10,063 — in Madhya Pradesh, India offers a unique spiritual spectacle. The town's myriad lanes meet at a series of stone riverfront steps and landings known as ghats. Ghats offer a direct passage to the Narmada, one of the most sacred rivers in India. Devotees from all parts of the world come to take a holy dip in the river, perform rituals, and offer prayers at the Omkareshwar temple on nearby Mandhata island, home to one of the 12 jyotirlingas — shrines of Shiva — in India. Offering prayers to the 330 million deities believed to reside in Omkareshwar and bathing in the river Narmada on auspicious dates are considered givers of salvation. Little wonder that for religious towns like Omkareshwar, managing increasing numbers of pilgrims during holy events has proven challenging for local administration. These towns often fall short of providing accommodation, transportation, and sanitation for pilgrims, and the risk of disasters is high due to overcrowding during major events.

According to the latest data from Madhya Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (MPTDC), about 5.4 million tourists visited Omkareshwar in 2013 alone. On major festivals, thousands of pilgrims perform parikrama rituals around Mandhata hill, where the main temple is housed. Twelve of these major events are celebrated in the town throughout the year, ranging from single-day to more than month-long events. In April and May of 2016, the city of Ujjain, less than 150 kms from Omkareshwar, will host a month-long Simhastha or Kumbh Mela, the first such festival in 12 years. While the Mela unfolds, a significant part of the crowd will turn up at Omkareshwar as part of their journey, numbering anywhere between 0.3 to 0.5 million people during peak day celebrations.

Several small towns like Omkareshwar are already deficit in terms of providing basic services to their resident population. They will also miss out on the tourism projects from the Indian central government, as these schemes are rolled out first to sites of utmost national importance and world heritage sites. The central and state financial assistance prioritizes popular circuits that demand dedicated public funding and are attractive to the private sector for investments.

Accessing assistance under Tourism schemes

Omkareshwar is one of several towns in India endowed with diverse natural, historic and cultural resources, but which are yet to maximize their tourist potential. Cities anticipate grants for major infrastructure creation as, in India, the bulk of capital expenditure for infrastructure comes from the national and state schemes with little local contribution. The new central government that came in power in India in May 2014 has rolled out a "5Ts" formula to develop "brand India". The T’s include tourism in addition to talent, tradition, trade and technology. Recently a policy of tourist visa on arrival was announced for nationals of 43 countries who are traveling to India for short stays of 30 days with the objective of sightseeing, medical treatment or casual visits. The Union Budget for 2014 — 15 in India announced two new schemes for promotion of tourism: the Pilgrimage Rejuvenation and Spiritual Augmentation Drive — PRASAD, which targets 12 heritage and religious cities, and the Swadesh Darshan scheme. The Ministry of Tourism has also identified 81 mega destinations for developing tourism-related infrastructure.

Despite the high number of annual visitors, Omkareshwar does not rank among India’s most popular and important attractions and does not figure in any of the central government schemes. Lacking this national-level support, the regional government has also identified parts of the state that have huge tourism potential, but lack facilities. The state marks such regions as "Special Tourism Zones (STZ)", where it attempts to develop infrastructure through convergence with other infrastructure programmes. Private players are encouraged to invest through tax exemptions and single window clearances for new projects.

Planning Challenges

There is much to be done in Omkareshwar before the start of Simhastha, the major festival coming to neighboring Ujjain in 2016. During major events, ghats, roads and the steps leading to various temples are abuzz with economic activity. An impeccable crowd management strategy would include appropriate check points, herding the pilgrims through narrow alleys, demarcating pedestrian routes, and providing for emergency management on ghats, paths, and crowded junctions. The main temple complex, cluttered by built forms all around and by foot bridges, would have to be redesigned to consider the safe access and exit of the crowds. Parking stations would need to be placed at a reasonable distance from the major attractions, which would need to provide amenities like water, toilets, shelters and information centers.

The risk of overcrowding in the town is high but, nevertheless, there is little room to expand. Nestled between river, steep hills and a canal, the city has very limited space that it could use to erect temporary facilities for special events. The Draft Development Plan of Omkareshwar 2021 includes a planning area of 1267.05 Ha, but 78% of this land is covered by forest, river and mountains, leaving only 50.53 Ha of land for settlement. Open plots are scarce and cannot accommodate the town’s entire floating population. Hence pilgrims usually take up a day trip and return back before nightfall, making Omkareshwar as a single day visit destination.

In addition to lack of facilities for tourists, Omkareshwar also lags in providing satisfactory services to its permanent resident population. According to Census 2011, only 33% of households in the city have access to drinking water in their homes and just 34% have access to personal toilets. About 51% of households defecate in the open, and the untreated wastewater ultimately finds it way in to the river where the pilgrims bathe and offer prayers.

The City Development Plan drafted in 2011for Omkareshwar accounts for hard infrastructure but leaves out soft negotiations around stakeholder issues that are more contentious. While the city might benefit from redeveloping popular tourist spaces to accommodate flow, any proposals to transform the ghats or widen the roads will need to consider the needs and livelihoods of these crucial stakeholders. Demolitions in any form are unpopular with elected representatives, as they draw rage of local stakeholders. For all new improvement proposals, temple trusts, informal vendors, restaurant owners, custodians of rituals, and locals will need to be taken on board to protect social and business interests.

Alternative possibilities

The urban discourse in India has recently focused on need to promote "smart cities" that would have intelligent physical, social, institutional and economic infrastructure, while ensuring opportunities for democratic participation in a sustainable environment. To enter the "smart club", cities like Omkareshwar will need to devise multipronged partnerships that will accommodate cultural heritage, be affordable for devotees, preserve the environment, and be financially sustainable. Financial resources will always remain a challenge for small destinations like Omkareshwar. This is evident from the fact that state government has chipped in for some improvement projects in light of upcoming Simhastha, but the funds are unlikely to cover stakeholder's wish list of projects or to make myriad infrastructure problems of Omkareshwar disappear overnight. Instead of waiting for the big grants, the town should consider various alternatives to alleviate its infrastructure deficit and aim for sustainable tourism growth.

Currently, Omkareshwar is dependent on a pilgrim tax levied by local government accounting for almost two-thirds of its revenue income. Revenue accounts show constant deficits, and more than half of its expenditure goes towards street lighting and solid waste management, largely for tourists. The Temple trust monetizes from pilgrims and spends its income on temple renovations, managing festivals and religions celebrations. They could be roped in for larger improvement projects through use of Information and Communication Technology solutions that needs less investment, but that contributes significantly to crowd management, emergency services and ensuring the safety of tourists. 

The infrastructure deficits in transportation, accommodation and waste management need engagement from local private players, either through operational or management contracts. However, public-private partnership projects in tourism are often delayed due to clearances, land availability and opposition from local stakeholders. Involving larger stakeholders can help create partnership projects in limited time frames.

Religious tourism significantly impacts economic development and livelihoods in small towns like Omkareshwar. The scope of economic development is in turn influenced by infrastructure availability for tourists and institutional mechanisms. State tourism policy should consider supporting small towns with a long-term tourism development plan. Crowd management solutions and low cost technologies for solid and liquid waste management can be easily replicated and lessons shared with similar destinations.

As Omkareshwar gears up for Simhastha 2016 and for the years ahead, it can seek multiple ways to provide smart solutions for its visitors. The spiritual city still awaits the smart city.

Chandan Chawla is an Architect-Urban Planner who has worked for 13 years in India on urban and rural development projects. She currently works as an independent researcher exploring urban issues.