Varanasi/Prayagraj: Under the Smart City project in Banaras, the city has seen some glaring changes. Cleanliness at major places, better roads, maintenance of the ghats, as well as the massive Kashi Vishwanath project are all examples of the work of the present State government.
But instead of a superficial look at the count of the projects and initiatives taken up, one may ask if these actions have been pro-people.
Pramod Manjhi, the leader of the Maa Ganga Nishad Seva Samiti, the largest navik (boaters) union at the ghats of Banaras, talks about the ongoing stalemate between the union and district administration due to a new government scheme. “Three years ago, we got the offer that all naviks attach a CNG engine which is eco-friendly, and we were asked to forfeit the older diesel ones,” Pramod said. Only this year, as the sum of twenty-nine crore was passed for the installation of eco-friendly motor engines, the trial run has begun.
“I readily agreed to this offer, as it is a large project and helps curb pollution.” But in the first trial run, the engines mounted on around 150 of our boats are facing extreme issues and we are paying heavy repair costs,” Pramod said.
He senses bureaucratic mismanagement and an attempt to digest large sums of money by the ministers and the private companies providing the engines, by giving faulty engines to the naviks. “I’ll not let them eat up public money, and wait for them to clear things out with us before the navik samaj agrees to the modernisation of all boats,” says Pramod “there have been a few meetings between us since the past 2 months, but it has not been fruitful.”
This is not the first time the navik samaj has been in confrontation with the state or district administration. On September 2, 2018, CM Yogi Adityanath inaugurated ‘Alaknanda’, a first-class luxury cruise ship to be run across the ghats of Banaras to boost the prospects of tourism in the city.
Naviks of Allahabad helping in asthi visarjan.
Pramod remembered the ominous day when CM Yogi Adityanath was to arrive at Khidkiya ghat to inaugurate the ship. “The business of the cruise across the ghats of Banaras means that it would directly affect our livelihood and the whole navik samaj. Surely, we would lose our customers to the cruise,” Pramod asserted. Pramod and the navik community registered their protest on that day against the action of the government as against the interests of the navik community.
In Allahabad, such dissent exists against the state and its bureaucracy among the naviks but is not glued together as a collective. The naviks express great disbelief in the bureaucratic system, which has failed them and their demands over the past decade. “In the Covid lockdown, even though we naviks are recognised by the government, no help whatsoever was sent to our aid” Rajkumar, a navik at Sangam, said.
The economy of naviks in Allahabad is very different from the ones in Banaras. Unlike the tourist economy of naviks of Banaras, the ritual of asthi visarjan at Sangam is one of the major aspects of the navik economy. Naviks take grieving families on their boats to the river, where the families can submerge the ashes of the dead person in the river, completing the Hindu funeral process. “It is of great tragedy that even in the (COVID-19) lockdown, when people used to come to do asthi visarjan the government had banned running boats. We had no measure of livelihood and barely managed through the lockdown” Rajkumar recalled.
Even though the boats were later allowed to run, the visitors to Sangam itself were not enough to restart a broken economy.
On top of that, one of the major complaints that naviks at Sangam have is the tight grip of restrictions the district administration has over naviks. “They restrict boats at all the crucial times of the year, such as major festivals. We even face restrictions in Ardh Kumbh Mela and the Kumbh Mela,” Rajkumar said. When asked if there is a way to put forth these problems of the whole navik samaj of Allahabad, Rajkumar disdainfully noted the uselessness of the union of the naviks called the Navik Sangh.
He reminisced about a nostalgic unity the naviks had three to four decades ago, which had a strong union and better union leaders. “We had so much power in those times. Now our weakness lies in the fact that politics has made our representatives power-hungry. They all want the label of being a union leader but do not want to work for the samaj, Rajkumar noted.
Another navik, Rajesh, noted that as the city of Allahabad industrialised and bridges were prominently constructed across the intersection of the rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati (which is called Sangam), the role of naviks declined. “In Kumbh Mela, we were a large part of Mela’s economy. Now, as there are other ways of conveyance across the Mela, we are no longer relevant,” Rajesh said.
As the role of the naviks declined, Rajesh argues, so did the role of a navik union. The administration ruthlessly takes advantage of the fact that the community is not unionised efficiently to place their demands, and harms the navik community’s livelihood to meet their own ends.” Actually, on the occasion that we are restricted to run boats, you can see that the motorboats of the administration run anyway. Many of them take tourists (unofficially) while we sit here at the ghats,” Rajesh said. Naviks in Allahabad feel helpless but also show no hope towards better unionisation.
In the protest against the cruise ship, Pramod set up camp with posters condemning the inauguration at the adjacent Bhaisasur ghat on the day of the inauguration. Pramod and the naviks also faced the police and the administration, who attempted to control the agitation.
Cruise ship behind navik boats moving across Rajendra Prasad Ghat.
“I had just started the protest and suddenly khaki-clad policemen swarmed the scene. We continued the protest nonetheless until the commissioner came and talked to me,” Pramod said. An agreement was reached between the police administration and the naviks that they would stop this agitation and let the inauguration proceed if they are promised a meeting with CM Yogi.
While meeting CM Yogi, Pramod and his fellow naviks clearly argued for their demands. “But Yogi baba left by saying ‘All this is done for your community itself’. To date, I haven’t been able to understand what he meant by this statement,” Pramod said.
The same day after the inauguration, CM Yogi announced a package of 12 crore rupees for the navik samaj to curb the protest. But neither the navik community accepted the package nor did the protests stop. It went on for the next 12 days, in the form of naukabandi and no naviks were running boats for these days.
The unity of the navik samaj is commendable for having stuck together for almost a period of two weeks, which directly affected their livelihood. A feature of such outspoken unity is the criticism of any kind of flamboyant measures of the State government (such as the cruise ship) or the city’s MP, Narendra Modi.
Rahul Sahani, a navik living near Tripura-Bhairavi ghat criticised Modi’s multiple visits to Banaras ghats on the occasion of dev deepawali, a festival that attracts many local Banarasi people as well as tourists to the ghats. “Modi ji has ruined two years of our dev Deepawali by arriving in Banaras on that day. The admin restricts all boats around the ghats which Modi is going to travel around. We cannot run our boats that day, which is a special occasion to earn something extra,” Rahul said.
As the protest of almost two weeks approached its 13th day, Pramod Manjhi staunchly asked the representatives of the administration to give a statement in writing, that the cruise ship will be moved to a different ghat that doesn’t interfere with the traditional system of navik boats. The administration agreed as the navik samaj threatened to continue the protests if the demand was not met.
“They did give us in writing that they would remove the cruise ship in the next 3 months, and we withdrew our agitation. But now, it has been 3 years since then, and the cruise still runs. One cannot ever believe these officers,” Pramod said.
The naviks at the ghats are still angry about the cruise ship running, but in the present, the bureaucratic spirals around the CNG engines for the boats have put many naviks in distress. In the last two meetings this year with the administration and the private companies providing the motor engines, the naviks complained about the faulty engines.
The naviks were promised that they would be given high-quality Yamaha engines but were asked to pay a sum of Rs 5,000 as a ‘contribution’ towards the new engines.
“I accepted it, and readily collected Rs 5,000 from 49 naviks and submitted it to the Nagar Nigam office. I understood that if a navik makes a small contribution for these engines, they would own it rightfully,” Pramod said. But by the next meeting, the district commissioner deemed the provision of Yamaha engines impossible. Pramod too remained unabashed by this sudden shift and refused to proceed with the whole scheme saying “that we are not here to spread our hands in front of you for the engines,” “We all gave Rs 5,000 to the Nagar Nigam to procure good Yamaha engines for our boats in September, as they promised us to provide us with the same. Now we go to the office of Nagar Nigam and we are asked to leave when we inquire about our money,” Rahul Sahani laments.
It remains to be seen if the naviks of Banaras will rise again against mischievous parties trying to loot money out of the boatmen’s misery.