This is the worst time of the year for the boatmen of Varanasi. During the monsoons the different ghats along the river Ganga go under water and even the most devout stay away from the river.

Between the months of July and October, there is not much to do for the boatmen who live off their meagre savings. Boating is banned during these months, and the more able ones take up odd jobs in the tourist-infested city, to make ends meet.

Boatmen continue to facilitate the cremation ceremonies, and in saving people from being drowned in the river.

Varanasi is unimaginable without its boatmen who are traditionally known as sons of the Ganga. However, boatmen who know everything about the waterscape of the country’s holiest city are an unhappy lot today.

They are unhappy because they work hard, often putting their life at risk but have remained deprived of a good life. The plight of boatmen was never as pathetic as it is today.

The boatmen belong to the Kewat, Mallah and Nishad caste, and trace their ancestry to the tribal chief Nishada who had played host to Rama during the king of Ayodhya’s exile in the Vindhya hills in prehistoric times.

According to The Ramayana, the story of Rama, it was a boatman from the Kewat caste who had washed Rama’s feet and rowed him across the Ganga. Talk to any boatman in Varanasi and they will tell passengers colourful stories of how they are descendants of characters like Nishada and Kewat mentioned in the epic called The Ramayana.

A Strong Pillar Of The Economy

There was a time when the boatmen were the strongest pillar of the city’s economy. They were in charge of transportation and had used the river for farming and sand mining.

But vested interests discredited the boatmen as alcoholics, thugs and criminals. The British deprived them of their right to the river and declared their caste criminal, encouraging society to demote the boatmen to a low caste of the population.

The result was that the community got pushed to the edge of society. The boatmen no longer have access to sand mining, fishing or the cultivation of land on the river bed. Today the boatmen are bracketed amongst the Other Backward Community (OBC).

The OBCs are amongst the largest community of poor people in Uttar Pradesh (UP). It is over 50 percent of the state’s population with dozens of sub-castes like Yadavs, Ahirs, Kurmi, Kumhar, Rajbhar, Pasi and others belonging to the OBC.

The population of the boatmen is about 2.15 percent within the OBC community. They continue to earn a living by engaging in different ways with their traditional occupation.

The total number of the community is about 50,000 in Varanasi and the job of most of the 2,000 boatmen is restricted to rowing passengers to and forth on the river from ghat to ghat. What the boatmen expect from the government is to help them improve their business and not to take away their livelihood.

The boatmen had lost all business during the pandemic and no one came to their rescue. For months on end there were no visitors in Varanasi and that had brought all activities of the boatmen to a halt.

The boatmen are protesting against the water taxis that are brought from Gujrat’s Bhavnagar into Varanasi. They see the water taxis and modern ways of tourism run by people from other states as a threat to their life and profession.

It will help the boatmen if they are trained as tourist guides and taught to lead various water sports. They need to be well compensated for saving people from drowning.

No one knows the river Ganga like the boatmen do and it is suggested that they be engaged in various capacities in all activities to clean the river as well.

Weavers Of Varanasi

Just like the boatmen, the weavers of Varanasi are also struggling to feed their respective families. Once upon a time this part of UP was rolling in wealth mainly due to its lush agricultural produce, along with the produce of its many small and medium scale industries.

Varanasi has been number one in the textile and handloom business. The weaver community is concentrated in the Bazardiha neighbourhood.

Today, Bazardiha is reduced to a slum but once upon a time it was a goldmine. With a population of nearly two lakh people, the majority of them Muslims, the neighbourhood sprawls with a sea of unemployed youngsters.

The unhealthy environment of the neighbourhood is no incentive for the young to continue the profession of their ancestors, despite the worldwide demand for Banarasi textiles, and especially saris.

The beauty of Bazardiha is that saris woven here by Muslims are worn mostly by Hindu women.

But the politics of the day has little feel for the romance of encouraging love, peace, harmony amongst citizens and cleaning up the deteriorating environment of the already backward state of UP.

The People’s Verdict

Ordinary people like boatmen and weavers seem disenchanted with the political leadership at large. There is a search for alternatives.

According to the Lokniti-CSDS post-election survey the OBCs, Scheduled Castes and Muslim voters in UP are attracted to the I.N.D.I.A. bloc, of opposition parties. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s popularity in UP stands at 36 percent compared to Prime Minister Modi’s popularity at 32 percent.

Congress is seen as a party of the youth at a time when ruling party legislatures have not kept in touch with the electorate in their respective constituencies. Unemployment is a major concern for the voters in the state and the frequent leak of examination papers for government jobs has further eroded public trust and led to frustration among the youth and their families, according to the post-poll survey.

Yadav and Muslim voters had consolidated in favour of the I.N.D.I.A. bloc along with many non-Jatav Dalit voters. The survey results showed that the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) had lost support among all the social denominations including Jatavs, its main support category.

According to the survey, the ruling party, known for its social engineering, was overpowered by Samajwadi Party (SP) Akhilesh Yadav’s alternative social engineering formula of ‘PDA’ under which he distributed tickets mostly to Pichhadas (backward communities) and Dalits and a few to Yadavs and Muslims in order to counter the allegation of being a Muslim-Yadav party only.

The survey data also showed that the OBCs and Dalit voters feared in the recently concluded general elections that the ruling party would change the Constitution after many of its leaders made statements to that effect.