Lucknow: Situated on the banks of the shrinking Ganga, over half a dozen hamlets in the spiritual city of Varanasi wore a deserted look even as relaxations have been extended during the first phase of unlocking. The Nishad community of boatmen from the city is gearing up to move to different places in search of jobs and other employment opportunities, as they are struggling to make ends meet amid the novel coronavirus-induced lockdown.
Though the Centre and Uttar Pradesh government have allowed malls, hotels, restaurants and religious places to open up across Noida and Uttar Pradesh from today after close to two months of the shutdown, they said that the protracted lockdown has pushed them to the brink of financial instability.
Rajesh Nishad, a boatman at ‘Assi Ghat’, told NewsClick that he and his elder son both had to switch to other occupations to feed their families and began to sell vegetables and ice-cream. “Summers used to be the booming period for our business as people don’t come in winters and during the rainy season. […] When everyone is getting permission including religious places, then why can't we?" he asked.
Kabir Mallah, another boatman, said: "Our community is suffering. We have been involved in this business for decades. We have no means of earning other than this. We are requesting the government to pay attention to our problems and help us."
The boatmen, known as the Mallah community, of Varanasi, are not happy with Uttar Pradesh government's decision to keep their business shut, as they claim to have remained the “most neglected community” in Varanasi.
"We supported the government by following the lockdown rules for more than two months. But now, we are struggling for our survival. Since everyone is getting permission to resume their work but we have not got any order despite requesting several times. The situation is pushing us into poverty. We did not even get help from the government," said Rajesh Nishad, a boatman as he sat on the steps of the iconic Assi Ghat.
"We were eagerly waiting for the lockdown to end as we are facing financial problems. Like the government has prohibited large gatherings and asked devotees not to touch idols or religious books, the same way, we can also ferry two people instead of eight or 10. We are willing to take just two people, but we want to start operating at the earliest," said Avdesh Mallah.
The absence of devotees at the Ghats due to the lockdown is also another issue the community expected to face. At least a thousand families, whose livelihood depends on all kinds of boating activities, are facing hardships to meet their day-to-day expenses on the city. The boatmen have demanded some relief from the government as the lockdown has badly affected their means of income in the past two months.
LOCKDOWN HITS SUMMER SEASON
For Nishad and thousands of boatmen in Varanasi, there can’t be a worse time for the lockdown. While they easily earn up Rs 300 a day in the summer months, earnings trickled down to a bare minimum in the lockdown.
Leader of Mallah Adhikaar Sangh and owner of four boats, Abhimanyu Mallah, said, "The Jal police use us for cleaning Ganga river on every occasion whenever Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, Prime Minister Narendra Modi or any VVIP guests come here. We are the one who always fish out the bodies and do not get paid a single penny for this risky work. Several political leaders assured us that they would take up the matter of recruiting us in the Jal police, but it was an election gimmick.”
"People don't come in winters, and we can't operate in the rainy season; summers are the only time we used to work and collect ration for a year. The government should provide some relief to us," he added.
On May 30, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), issued new guidelines for phased re-opening of "all activities outside containment zones for the next one month beginning June 1".
"The guidelines came into effect from June 1, 2020, and will be effective till June 30, 2020. The current phase of re-opening, Unlock 1, will have an economic focus," MHA said in a release.
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