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Traditional boatmen struggle to protect their livelihood

The growth of modern tourism activities, coming after the hard times posed by the pandemic, is making life difficult for a community that has been celebrated even in Hindu mythology

Of late, traditional boatmen of Varanasi have been trying to mobilise support for protests against the introduction of water taxis in the Ganga River, which is a threat to their livelihood. This is not the first time that the introduction of more advanced and expensive forms of tourism activities by the organised sector has threatened the livelihoods of those depending on traditional forms. However, the situation in Varanasi has attracted more attention, as the traditional boatmen from Mallah or Nishad Communities have been such an integral part of the social-cultural scene here. Stories of their ancestors are told and retold in mythology, and any threat to their livelihood evokes shock and dismay.

There are around 8000 traditional boatmen in Varanasi, and many others earn their livelihoods in ancillary or related activities. The community is estimated to have some 50,000 members in Varanasi. Despite the popular picture-postcard views of boats and boatmen of Varanasi, and visuals of famous events like the Ganga aarti (wicks soaked in oil/ ghee are lit and offered to deities) typically viewed from boats, the boatmen struggle to feed their families.

It is not that the threat is overwhelming at present, but many of the boatmen feel that the existing small threats are likely to grow if not challenged now. They also complain that several river-based livelihood rights their communities enjoyed earlier have been eroded over time. Making matters worse, the recent threats have come on top of the serious livelihood issues the boatmen faced in COVID times. With hardly any tourist arrivals for several months and restrictions being placed on their work, the boatmen could earn almost nothing for a long time. The monsoon months in any case are a time of low earnings. Several boatmen who cannot afford their own boats operate rented ones, and their profits margins are low even during normal times.

An interesting study of the boatmen titled, Life on the Ganga – Boatmen and the Ritual Economy of Banaras (Cambridge University Press and Foundation Books) was published some time ago. The author, Assa Doron, says, “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 levelled against them by state and non-state actors.”

No matter what luxury and comfort level modern tourism provides, the unique attractions of Varanasi and in particular its river-boating experience are best presented by traditional boatmen who know and understand the river, its many moods and mysteries. As the boatmen are very well informed about the Ganga River and its various ghats, at times they function as guides for tourists. With some help and better recognition, this role can be strengthened to provide additional livelihood options.

Also, this community has been providing the valuable contribution of saving people from drowning – something for which they rarely get credit. Their role can be strengthened by assigning protection and guard duties to the boatmen community at the various ghats. Youth and students from this community can also be encouraged to take up careers in various water sports.

Keeping the Ganga River clean is a growing priority. Again, this community is well suited to contribute to this task. Hence, the government should provide them more livelihood opportunities in maintaining the river and its ghats.

(Bharat Dogra, New Delhi. The writer is a senior freelance journalist and author who has been associated with several social movements and initiatives. He lives in New Delhi.)