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Boatmen’s Livelihood at Stake in PM Modi's Varanasi

Hundreds of local boatmen went on strike for a week in protest against the proposed water taxi service on the Ganga.
Boatmen’s Livelihood at Stake in PM Modi's Varanasi

Lucknow: Sujit Nishad, a 56-year-old boatman, was sitting on the stairs of the iconic Assi Ghat and looked visibly lost. He has been ferrying pilgrims and tourists on boats in Varanasi since he was 14. An occupation he grew up enjoying has now turned into a ‘burden’ for him after the Varanasi municipal corporation decided to ply water taxis in the river Ganga.

My father owned this boat before me,” he said to NewsClick. “I’ve been working in this spot for 42 years. First, Covid-19 robbed us of our only source of livelihood, and many among us migrated to other places in search of jobs. Now the administration wants to take away the livelihood of those who survived by introducing water taxis from Gujarat,” a distraught Nishad said.

Ferrying boat was the only technique I have learnt from my elders, and this is how I have been feeding my family and fulfilling other needs,” Nishad told NewsClick.

Nishad is not the only one affected by water taxis. Mohit Manjhi, another boatman at Ravidas Ghat, was worried about what he would do if water taxis took over county boats.

Varanasi — the city temples – is said to have as many as 84 ghats serviced till now by 1,500 country boats that have been ferrying tourists on the river Ganga for several decades. Uncertainty looms large over around ten thousand traditional boatmen families after the water taxi attracted passengers last week.

Pramod Manjhi, president of Maa Ganga Nishadraj Seva Nyas, accused the district administration of not informing them before taking the decision to run water taxis even though they were running from pillar to post to meet the officials. “If water taxis ply at the ghats, they will affect the business, which is our only source of income. Therefore, water taxis should not be plied,” Manjhi told NewsClick.

Hundreds of local boatmen, under the banner of Maa Ganga Nishadraj Seva Nyas, a union raising the issues of boatmen, went on strike for a week in protest against the proposed water taxi service on the Ganga. They stopped the operation of boats, prohibiting pilgrims and tourists from boat rides, leading to a massive loss.

The union alleged that despite their repeated request not to start the water taxi service, the district administration and the municipal authorities turned a deaf ear to their concerns. “We have called off our strike as of now after the administration assured us to find a way. But we will soon launch a fresh strike until our demand is fulfilled,” said Manjhi, the president of Maa Ganga Nishadraj Seva Nyas, the apex body of the boatmen community.

When asked how water taxis affect livelihoods, the union leader said that around 10,000 boatmen are engaged in boat operations in Varanasi, where about 1,500 boats are functional. About 50,000 members of the Nishad community are dependent solely on boating, he said, asserting that the operating of water taxis on the Ganga will adversely affect their livelihood.

According to Manjhi, the cruise service of the Municipal Corporation charges Rs 1,500, while the boatmen community will only take Rs 400 for the same kind of ride. He said the community will not allow the plying of water taxis at any cost.

The boatmen, mostly belonging to the Nishad-Kashyap community, of Varanasi, are not happy with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's callous attitude and feel cheated by the ruling government. The most neglected community had wholeheartedly supported Modi when he contested the election from Varanasi in 2014, thinking their condition might improve. The community was wooed then by the BJP and Modi himself. However, they say their interests have been ignored since then.

At least ten motorboats recently arrived in Varanasi from Bhavnagar in Gujarat to be utilized as water taxis. According to the Varanasi Municipal Corporation, the water taxi service will smooth traffic flow as it would carry pilgrims from Ramnagar fort to Kashi Vishwanath temple gate through the Ganga River. The taxis are expected to become operational by July 15 if all goes as planned. The officials, including the divisional commissioner, Kaushal Raj Sharma, DM S Rajalingam, and municipal commissioner Sipu Giri, inspected the motorboats. However, the traditional boatmen have been saying that the plying of water taxis would snatch their livelihoods and be the final blow to their business.

Meanwhile, Samajwadi Party Chief Akhilesh Yadav has also come out in support of the boatmen, saying that the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) is taking away business from the poor people. Justifying the boatmen's protest, he stated that the people will teach this government a lesson in the upcoming general elections.

"In Kashi, the people of the Machhua-Nishad-Kashyap community blocked the route of the cruise by forming a 'boat-circle' to protest against the attack on their traditional livelihood by the BJP government and gave a direct message that this community will not let the ruling BJP cross the next elections," he said in a Hindi tweet.

For Nishad and the thousands of boatmen in Varanasi, the lockdown couldn't have come at a worse time. Thousands of boatmen, who have been in the generation-old business, were forced to switch occupations and migrate to big cities for labour jobs, as reported by NewsClick. Several political leaders assured them that they would take up the matter of recruiting them in the Jal police, as most of them also participate in cleaning the Ganga River on every occasion. However, it was proven to be an election gimmick.

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