Traditional Boatmen of Varanasi Struggle to Protect Their Livelihoods

Traditional Boatmen of Varanasi

Recently there have been several efforts by traditional boatmen of Varanasi to mobilize protests against their livelihoods being threatened by the introduction of water taxis in the Ganga river. In fact there was even a strike by them on this issue when they did ply their boats for some time. Earlier there was a protest by them against the introduction of luxury cruises in the river.

This is not the first time that the introduction of more advanced and expensive forms of tourism activities by the organized sector has threatened the livelihoods of those depending on traditional forms of livelihoods related to tourism. However in the context of Varanasi this has attracted more attention as the traditional boatmen here from Mallah or Nishad communities have been such an integral part of the social-cultural scene, with stories of their ancestors being told and retold in mythology, that any discussion on threat to their livelihood invariably evokes expressions of shock and dismay.

It is not that the scale of the threat is overwhelming just now, but several boatmen feel that the initial smaller threats are likely to turn into bigger ones later if these are not challenged now. They also complain that several river based livelihood rights their communities enjoyed earlier were eroded with the passage of time.

Another factor responsible for the distress of the community is that recent threats have come on top of the serious livelihood threats they faced in Covid times. With hardly any tourists visible for several months and restrictions being placed on their work, boatmen were deprived of almost any earnings for a long time. In addition monsoon months in any case are a time of low earnings.

There are an estimated number of 1500 boats providing livelihood to around 8000 boatmen in Varanasi, apart from other livelihoods in ancillary or related activities. Counting all family members, the total numbers of the community are estimated to be around 50,000 in Varanasi.

Several boatmen cannot afford to own their boats and operate rented boats. The earning margins are low for them even in normal times.

Despite the attractive picture postcard views of boats and boatmen of Varanasi we often see, or very famous views of events like Ganga aarti or worship that pilgrims and tourists like to have from boats, the typical common boatman of Varanasi ( like the common Banarasi sari weaver) may be actually struggling quite hard to feed his family.

An interesting study of these boatmen titled ‘Life on the Ganga–Boatmen and the Ritual Economy of Banaras’ (Cambridge University Press and Foundation Books) was published some time back. In this book the author, Assa Doron, has written, “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 leveled against them by state and non-state actors.”

Hence while this community from relatively lower levels of social hierarchy has been used to struggles to protect their   access to river-based livelihoods, situations like Covid and unfair competition from state sponsored big-budget tourism have probably appeared for the first time, that too one soon after the other. In this difficult situation, the boatmen deserve sympathy and help.

No matter what the luxury and comfort level provided by modern tourism, the unique attractions of Varanasi and in particular its river-boating experience cannot be separated from the true children of the river—its traditional boatmen who know and understand the river—its many moods and mysteries—like no one else can. Hence whatever changes the authorities may be contemplating must definitely include a major role for these traditional boatmen of the pilgrim city.

As the boatmen are very well informed about the Ganga river and its various ghats, sometimes they often function as guides for tourists. With some help and better recognition, this role can be strengthened to provide some additional livelihoods.

An extremely valuable contribution which many members of this community have been making from time to time relates to saving the life of many people who face the risk of getting drowned. It is only rarely that they get the due credit for this. This role can be strengthened by giving them protection and guard duties at various ghats. After all, their ability to negotiate the river water even in times of furious waves is not surpassed by any other community.

Youth and students from this community can also be promoted in an organized way for careers in various water sports.

Keeping the Ganga river and its ghats clean is getting increasing priority. Again this community is very well suited to contribute to this task. Hence the government should provide them more livelihoods in keeping the river and its ghats in cleaner conditions.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Man over Machine, When the Two Streams Met and Protecting Earth for Children.


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