Skip to main content

Threatened livelihood of 8,000 Varanasi boatmen: Water taxis, luxury cruises

By Bharat Dogra* 

Recently there have been several efforts by traditional boatmen of Varanasi to mobilize protests against their livelihoods being threatened by the introduction of water taxis in the Ganga river. In fact there was even a strike by them on this issue when they did ply their boats for some time. Earlier there was a protest by them against the introduction of luxury cruises in the river.
This is not the first time that the introduction of more advanced and expensive forms of tourism activities by the organized sector has threatened the livelihoods of those depending on traditional forms of livelihoods related to tourism. 
However, in the context of Varanasi this has attracted more attention as the traditional boatmen here from Mallah or Nishad communities have been such an integral part of the social-cultural scene, with stories of their ancestors being told and retold in mythology, that any discussion on threat to their livelihood invariably evokes expressions of shock and dismay.
It is not that the scale of the threat is overwhelming just now, but several boatmen feel that the initial smaller threats are likely to turn into bigger ones later if these are not challenged now. They also complain that several river based livelihood rights their communities enjoyed earlier were eroded with the passage of time.
Another factor responsible for the distress of the community is that recent threats have come on top of the serious livelihood threats they faced in Covid times. With hardly any tourists visible for several months and restrictions being placed on their work, boatmen were deprived of almost any earnings for a long time. In addition monsoon months in any case are a time of low earnings.
There are an estimated number of 1,500 boats providing livelihood to around 8,000 boatmen in Varanasi, apart from other livelihoods in ancillary or related activities. Counting all family members, the total numbers of the community are estimated to be around 50,000 in Varanasi.
Several boatmen cannot afford to own their boats and operate rented boats. The earning margins are low for them even in normal times.
Despite the attractive picture postcard views of boats and boatmen of Varanasi we often see, or very famous views of events like Ganga aarti or worship that pilgrims and tourists like to have from boats, the typical common boatman of Varanasi (like the common Banarasi sari weaver) may be actually struggling quite hard to feed his family.
An interesting study of these boatmen titled ‘Life on the Ganga: Boatmen and the Ritual Economy of Banaras’ (Cambridge University Press and Foundation Books) was published some time back. In this book the author, Assa Doron, has written: 
“These boatmen belonging to the Mallah caste exhibit a wide range of resistant practices, ranging from everyday acts to more coordinated collective ones, in an effort to defend their livelihoods against the pressures and prejudices leveled against them by state and non-state actors.”
Hence while this community from relatively lower levels of social hierarchy has been used to struggles to protect their access to river-based livelihoods, situations like Covid and unfair competition from state sponsored big-budget tourism have probably appeared for the first time, that too one soon after the other. In this difficult situation, the boatmen deserve sympathy and help.
No matter what the luxury and comfort level provided by modern tourism, the unique attractions of Varanasi and in particular its river-boating experience cannot be separated from the true children of the river—its traditional boatmen who know and understand the river – its many moods and mysteries – like no one else can. Hence whatever changes the authorities may be contemplating must definitely include a major role for these traditional boatmen of the pilgrim city.
As the boatmen are very well informed about the Ganga river and its various ghats, sometimes they often function as guides for tourists. With some help and better recognition, this role can be strengthened to provide some additional livelihoods.
An extremely valuable contribution which many members of this community have been making from time to time relates to saving the life of many people who face the risk of getting drowned. It is only rarely that they get the due credit for this. This role can be strengthened by giving them protection and guard duties at various ghats. After all, their ability to negotiate the river water even in times of furious waves is not surpassed by any other community.
Youth and students from this community can also be promoted in an organized way for careers in various water sports.
Keeping the Ganga river and its ghats clean is getting increasing priority. Again this community is very well suited to contribute to this task. Hence the government should provide them more livelihoods in keeping the river and its ghats in cleaner conditions.
---
*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘Man over Machine’, ‘When the Two Streams Met’ and ‘Protecting Earth for Children’

Comments

TRENDING

Bill Gates as funder, author, editor, adviser? Data imperialism: manipulating the metrics

By Dr Amitav Banerjee, MD*  When Mahatma Gandhi on invitation from Buckingham Palace was invited to have tea with King George V, he was asked, “Mr Gandhi, do you think you are properly dressed to meet the King?” Gandhi retorted, “Do not worry about my clothes. The King has enough clothes on for both of us.”

Stagnating wages since 2014-15: Economists explain Modi legacy for informal workers

By Our Representative  Real wages have barely risen in India since 2014-15, despite rapid GDP growth. The country’s social security system has also stagnated in this period. The lives of informal workers remain extremely precarious, especially in states like Jharkhand where casual employment is the main source of livelihood for millions. These are some of the findings presented by economists Jean Drèze and Reetika Khera at a press conference convened by the Loktantra Bachao 2024 campaign. 

Displaced from Bangladesh, Buddhist, Hindu groups without citizenship in Arunachal

By Sharma Lohit  Buddhist Chakma and Hindu Hajongs were settled in the 1960s in parts of Changlang and Papum Pare district of Arunachal Pradesh after they had fled Chittagong Hill Tracts of present Bangladesh following an ethnic clash and a dam disaster. Their original population was around 5,000, but at present, it is said to be close to one lakh.

Anti-Rupala Rajputs 'have no support' of numerically strong Kshatriya communities

By Rajiv Shah  Personally, I have no love lost for Purshottam Rupala, though I have known him ever since I was posted as the Times of India representative in Gandhinagar in 1997, from where I was supposed to do political reporting. In news after he made the statement that 'maharajas' succumbed to foreign rulers, including the British, and even married off their daughters them, there have been large Rajput rallies against him for “insulting” the community.

A Hindu alternative to Valentine's Day? 'Shiv-Parvati was first love marriage in Universe'

By Rajiv Shah*   The other day, I was searching on Google a quote on Maha Shivratri which I wanted to send to someone, a confirmed Shiv Bhakt, quite close to me -- with an underlying message to act positively instead of being negative. On top of the search, I chanced upon an article in, imagine!, a Nashik Corporation site which offered me something very unusual. 

Magnetic, stunning, Protima Bedi 'exposed' malice of sexual repression in society

By Harsh Thakor*  Protima Bedi was born to a baniya businessman and a Bengali mother as Protima Gupta in Delhi in 1949. Her father was a small-time trader, who was thrown out of his family for marrying a dark Bengali women. The theme of her early life was to rebel against traditional bondage. It was extraordinary how Protima underwent a metamorphosis from a conventional convent-educated girl into a freak. On October 12th was her 75th birthday; earlier this year, on August 18th it was her 25th death anniversary.

What's Bill Gates up to? Have 'irregularities' found in funding HPV vaccine trials faded?

By Colin Gonsalves*  After having read the 72nd report of the Department Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on alleged irregularities in the conduct of studies using HPV vaccines by PATH in India, it was startling to see Bill Gates bobbing his head up and down and smiling ingratiatingly on prime time television while the Prime Minister lectured him in Hindi on his plans for the country. 

Joblessness, saffronisation, corporatisation of education: BJP 'squarely responsible'

Counterview Desk  In an open appeal to youth and students across India, several student and youth organizations from across India have said that the ruling party is squarely accountable for the issues concerning the students and the youth, including expensive education and extensive joblessness.

Following the 3000-year old Pharaoh legacy? Poll-eve Surya tilak on Ram Lalla statue

By Sukla Sen  Located at a site called Abu Simbel in Nubia, Upper Egypt, the eponymous rock temples were created in 1244 BCE, under the orders of Pharaoh Ramesses II (1303-1213 BC)... Ramesses II was fond of showcasing his achievements. It was this desire to brag about his victory that led to the planning and eventual construction of the temples (interestingly, historians say that the Battle of Qadesh actually ended in a draw based on the depicted story -- not quite the definitive victory Ramesses II was making it out to be).

India's "welcome" proposal to impose sin tax on aerated drinks is part of to fight growing sugar consumption

By Amit Srivastava* A proposal to tax sugar sweetened beverages like tobacco in India has been welcomed by public health advocates. The proposal to increase sin taxes on aerated drinks is part of the recommendations made by India’s Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian on the upcoming Goods and Services Tax (GST) bill in the parliament of India.