Varanasi: On the rightward end of Assi Ghat, several boatmen sit around on chairs, fanning themselves with their gamchas (neck-scarfs) and peer at an abnormally risen Ganga, the river that has given them their livelihood. It’s mid-September and a sunny afternoon, the water simmers and soothes a cool breeze as everyone sits under the shade of a small podium-stage; the boatmen look bored and are silently gazing around. “It is flooded right now, what else can we do but sit around?” says Girdharilal Nishad. Girdharilal is a navik who owns 10 boats on Assi Ghat but is currently not able to run any as boat travel for tourists is restricted. “On the order of the DM (district magistrate), boat travel is restricted.” This has been the case for the past months of August and most of September.
But regardless of that, post the second wave of Covid-19, the number of tourists visiting the ghats have been reduced. Many naviks say that the first wave was manageable, but the navik samaj broke down in the second. The lockdown itself, as Girdharilal describes, has been filled with a lot of struggles and pains for him and his fellow navik mazdoors (naviks who run the boats but don’t own them). “During the lockdown, food rations did double, but prices of other materials such as cooking oil increased. Some people ate once a day, others who had a few assets sold it off to get some money to feed their families,” Girdharilal laments. “Some naviks who took loans for constructing their boats also had no relief on their loans, and had to sell their jewellery and vehicles to pay them.”
Madan Sahani, a navik mazdoor who works with Girdharilal on his boats, had to move away from boating to do other forms of labour in the city such as manual construction labour or manual transport. “What could I have done, somehow I have to pay for my daughter’s coaching and studies. I am still struggling because of the flooding and can’t return to boating.” Madan says “I also don’t have a ration card, so where should I go to get wheat and rice?”. Girdharilal says many naviks like Madan and others cannot get a ration card. “We go to the office at Bhelupur and submit our forms but the officers reject our applications, telling us to get this or that signature, saying that the ration cards cannot be made. The officers are not good people and they refuse to help us.”
“Naviks across Banaras have traditionally been fishermen, and many beyond Banaras, such as in the districts of Mirzapur and Chandauli still do the same line of work but belong to our community of Nishads” says Babu Sahani, a navik boat owner at Rajendra Prasad Ghat. “So, many naviks here also started fishing, either to sell or eat, to get through the troubling times of lockdown.” Such are the scenarios that the boatmen have to go through. Many were supported by the collective union of the Navik-Malha castes, the Maa Ganga Nishad Seva Samiti.
The union acted as a mediator between helpers from the cities of Delhi and Mumbai, NGOs and the desolate navik families. One also frequently hears the name of actor Sonu Sood. If one asks a navik about who helped them with resources and food through the lockdown, it is almost certain that they would name Sood. “We asked the government to help us, many people were on the verge of starvation, but there was no help. In place, we were helped with rations by private NGOs, Varanasi’s Vyapar Mandal and Sonu Sood. The people of our community living in Shivala, Raj Ghat, Badhani and some other ghats were supplied at least twice with rations”
Government announced 1,000 rupees per month as support for daily wage workers, but that too has not reached any of the naviks who filled forms and registered for it. The support scheme was announced back in March 2020. A second scheme announced this year is said to be working for many women, and they have received the money. “But in all these schemes, one thing is that the middlemen eat up much of the money, which also includes people from the BJP, who are parshads (municipal councillors),” Babu noted.
The president of the navik union, Pramod Manjhi claims that the navik community has faced the worst in society. “Other people had moved on to some other work through Covid. But our work was first stopped by the city administration itself. Secondly, all movement stopped, so we have been facing the brunt of Covid since the beginning and continue to, even now,” Pramod said. Talking about the efforts of the union and the naviks helping themselves through starvation and joblessness, Pramod recalled, “we distributed more than 4,500 kits of rations to our people, but you would be amazed to know that there was not even a grain of salt in any of it by the Hindustan government or the UP government.”
Pramod, after noticing the predicament of many navik families through the pandemic, made a video that went viral on social media earlier this year. He added his own statement and contact number, and hence started the influx of help and resources. As many of the kits that were distributed were from private individuals and associations, Pramod faced a lot of problems getting hands on the resources sent for the naviks. “At least six times, the ration kits given by Sonu Sood never reached me. Somewhere in between, as the kits were sanctioned by the lekhpal or the DM, these kits were diverted elsewhere under my name. Then I realised that these people (the administration) didn’t want it to reach me as it may insult the government,” Pramod said.
Regardless, several people affiliated with the BJP tried to take credit for the many sacks of rations and resources sent from different cities and people. On a day of distribution at the ghats, Pramod had set up a mic system to talk to the naviks, informing them about the packages and the different people and organisations who sent them. Pramod angrily recounted, “I just finished the distribution and from somewhere, a pradhan and a parshad associated with the BJP came about and started chanting the names of ‘Modi ji’ and ‘Yogi ji’ on the mic, as if they had sent the rations. I immediately confronted them and asked them if even a grain of salt is given to us by Modi ji and Yogi ji.” The BJP netas apparently talked about the ‘inspiration’ sourced from PM Modi and CM Yogi that helps such distributions. After the rebuke by Pramod, soon they kept the mic away and left.
In late September, when I met Vinod Kumar, a navik mazdoor at Tripura-Bhairavi ghat, he told me about his similar predicaments, like other mazdoors, of debt and joblessness. Passing time playing cards by the temple at the corner of the ghat, like any other day, another fellow navik suddenly approached him and informed that the boats were now allowed to run. The boatmen were given permission that evening, given they followed all safety protocols (such as mandatory life jackets for tourists). With a sigh of relief, he ventured out to find some work.
Babu Sahani mentioned that the navik union could finally convince the magistrate that the water level of the Ganga is safe enough for tourists to travel. But to recover from the toll of Covid-19 lockdowns, Babu says that “the movement of international tourists is very important. If international visitors are allowed to travel to India and Banaras, the most devastated people of our samaj would get better. We are waiting for the government to allow people from foreign to visit us.”
Pramod pointed out that “local tourists can only help us with our chai-paani. But the backwardness we are facing due to the lockdowns cannot be fixed only by local tourism.” Since the last week of September, given the permission to run boats, many naviks can now be seen to be travelling with tourists throughout the day, but many continue to be paralyzed due to their debts. The water level may rise and fall through this month of October and there is a high chance that the naviks and the union will be stuck again in bureaucratic roundabouts, of claiming safety, paperwork for permissions, and the like.
Several of them look forward to the winters when tourism may boom and Ganga stabilizes. Only time can tell if the poor can survive the toll of the pandemic, while the state government seems to have forgotten about their existence.
The author is an independent writer.