An ancient city. A Hindutva political dream of commercialization of the everydayness of this city— whitewashed as development. A working class community of tens of thousands of people from oppressed castes, fighting and surviving in the face of an apathetic government that works hand in glove with the corporates. All of this enmeshed together forms the political economy of the river Ganga in Varanasi, a picture as the local boatmen say, ‘faraway from ache din’.
The history and present of Varanasi, a city located on the left bank of the Ganga in Uttar Pradesh, is interlinked with the river. The key to understanding anything lies in asking questions especially when the state refuses to answer. Again and again one must ask— who does the river belong to?
Children of Ganga
The incumbent Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi won his first term when he got elected as the Lok Sabha representative of the city in 2014.
Five years later in 2019 when he campaigned and won again in the city, he called it homecoming. But Pankaj Nishad, a 30 years old boatman said that he does not feel at home in the city anymore. He belong to the Nishad or Mallah community which is categorized as Other Backward Castes in the state—historically associated with water based activities in this region. People from these communities work as boatmen, engage in growing eatables like cucumber, melon etc along the sandy bank of the river, and also work as tourist guides in peak seasons. Even though the current regime has reiterated the cultural importance of the river Ganga for Hindus, just like previous regimes, it has also failed to capture its essentiality in the lives and livelihoods options for these local communities.
“I have lived and worked on the ghats all my life but things have become really bad for us since Modi and Yogi came to power. They are trying to murder us in the name of modernization”, Pankaj told referring to several multi-crore projects taken up by both the state and central government mostly sold to people in the name of tourism economy.
An Ongoing Series of Dream Projects and Destruction
In 2019, the Yogi government went ahead with a 600 crore Kashi Vishwanath (KV) Corridor Project in the city amidst protests to make a comfortable pathway to the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple. An area of 5 lakh sq ft was obtained by the demolition of shops, houses and temples some of which were several centuries old.
When I had last visited the area in 2019, several locals had alleged that they were coerced into the arrangement. Every resistance was met with complete power and water supply cuts and some did not even get the entire compensation money. Surely development and not appeasement of the rich Hindus, the party says.
In January 2019, the boatmen from Mallah community protested against the state government’s decision to allow a private five-star cruise to operate in the river Ganga.
‘We did not want the cruise to operate in the river area between Ramnagar and Raj Ghat because we make a living by doing ferry rounds in that area’, Ratan Nishad, a prominent member of Varanasi Nishad Raj Kalyan Samiti (VNRKS) that had organized the protests, said.
He also said that local boatmen were not given license for motor boats citing harms caused by the use of diesel to the freshwater turtle wildlife sanctuary in the river but the cruise owner got one.
The protests initially ended when they got in writing that the cruise would be removed but it never materialized. They restarted their protest which went on for three months but then stopped due to lack of engagement from the side of the administration.
In January 2021, the tourism department of the city met with the boatmen to inform them about the arrival of another cruise.
“Bahut jhooti sarkar hai ye, bharosa karne layak nahi hai (This government is a liar, it is not worthy of trust.)”, Pankaj said.
“We have enough boats to attend to all tourists even during the peak seasons. Then why is the government adamant on introducing new cruises and snatching our livelihoods?”, questioned Brijesh, who has been working as a boatman for more than a decade now.
The generational labour performed by the Nishad community is central in the development of tourist attraction of the ghats. Today they are being pushed to the margins of a space that they created and still continue to nurture.
COVID-19 Pandemic and New Miseries
Nobody was ready for the pandemic or the wave of loss of life & livelihood and the associated continum of grief. Things became particularly difficult for the Mallah communities in the city. “Baki log kuch to paaye, humlog to bas ab baith ke ro sakte hain (Others at least got something but the only thing that we can do is to cry”), Pankaj expressed on the last day of April, 2021.
Last year also the cancellation of international flights and the restrictions during the inconsiderate national lockdown made it difficult for them to make ends meet.
Ratan informed that during that period thousands of boatmen had applied for the financial assistance of Rs.1000 per month announced by the state government to daily wage earners but none of them ever got the money. Once the lockdown was lifted, things became a little better with the arrival of domestic tourists.
Now with the brutal second wave of COVID-19 in the country, Brijesh said “we don’t have any paid work unlike last year when local tourists visited the ghats.” When questioned about asking the government to help the community, he said “everyone in the country is suffering now, do you think they will listen to us now?”
The respondents said that the government provided five kgs of rice and wheat each, from June 2020 to December 2020 and non-governmental organizations and regional political parties also helped them with food but gradually, all of them stopped. The government ration has also stopped since January, 2021. Throughout the country, working class communities most of whose work come under unorganized sectors, with their negligible or no savings are finding it beyond difficult to cope up with the pandemic induced worsening of their socio-economic conditions. Meanwhile, disregarding the demands for providing food security, the government has still not universalized the public distribution system (PDS).
Politics, Culture, and the Political Economy of Everyday Communalism in Eastern Uttar Pradesh: An Excerpt
Manan Majhi, another member of VNRKS said that they have too many battles to fight at once. In April 2021, the Samiti was protesting with the farmers from Bind caste who feared that their cultivation of melon and cucumbers on the eastern banks of Ganga would be spoiled from the dredge work as well as other ‘development’ work that is happening in that area.
The ongoing dredging work is a part of the process to build inland waterways connecting Varanasi with Haldia in West Bengal under the National Waterways Project funded jointly by the Center and the World Bank. The path for this project was cleared in 2019 itself when the state government denotified the turtle wildlife sanctuary created in the river and relocated it to Allahabad-Mirzapur river stretch.
Along with that, the state government has also started the process of making Varanasi, a ‘tent city’— straight out of PM’s list of dream projects.
The state government in public private partnership (PPP) is all set to construct tented accommodation to ‘attract’ foreign tourists on the Eastern bank of Ganga. Meanwhile, the district administration has said that this project will create thousands of employment opportunities for the locals, Hindustan Times reported. Manjhi laughed at the mention of these opportunities. “Pehle jo kaam hai usko to bacha le fir naya rozgaar denge (They should first try to save the existing opportunities and then create new ones)”. There is also a lot of anxiety around the ancient essence of the city that might be lost in these beautification and modernization projects which Pankaj expressed,
“Development kariye na, purani cheez jo hai vo kyu barbad kar rahe hain? (If they want to bring development they should but why are they destroying the heritage of the city?”
But the Struggle Shall Continue
The fact that even in the face of thousands of COVID-19 deaths throughout the country, the Modi-Yogi government has not stopped all their non-essential development projects to rescue the citizens from this crisis is evidence of the class character of this government which values capital over everything else. The political promise to rejuvenate river Ganga, has been broken consciously as several projects that pose grave danger to the ecology of the river continue without any hesitation on the side of the state. The working class Mallah communities whose labour has formed the underbelly of the city since time immemorial, have been abandoned completely by the state in the time of a global crisis but Ratan says that “ye sarkar to bahut adiyal hai, lekin hum apna sangharsh jari rakhenge (Even though this government is very stubborn, we will still continue our struggle against it”)
Names have been changed.