In UP, police crackdown adds to the Nishad community’s woes during coronavirus lockdown

Fishermen preparing a net in the waters of the river Ganga in Allahabad, in 2015. Since the nationwide lockdown to combat the novel coronavirus began, the Nishad community, traditionally associated with fishing and other work centred on rivers, has been struggling to earn a living. Prabhat Kumar Verma/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images
29 April, 2020

On 25 April, Surendra Sahni was among a few Mallah boatmen—the Mallahs form part of the Nishad community—plying their boats on the Kuon river of Uttar Pradesh, ferrying their vegetable produce to Gorakhpur, the chief minister Adityanath’s home district. At around noon, police personnel arrived at the far bank, on the Gorakhpur side. Sahni said, “The police called us to the shore. When they called, one of the boys on the shore got scared and started running. The police began abusing him. When I reached the shore with my boat, I asked them what happened, but they didn’t say anything.” The policemen returned half an hour later, with JCB machines, “and took eight of our boats,” Sahni said.

Some of the boats were damaged while the police confiscated them, Sahni added. “They took the boats to Sikriganj police station, in Gorakhpur. My village is in Baswari, in Sant Kabir Nagar district,” he added. The Kuon river is flanked by two districts—Sant Kabir Nagar on one, and Gorakhpur on the other. Since the lockdown to combat the novel coronavirus began, the Nishad community, traditionally associated with fishing and other work centred on rivers, has been struggling to earn a living.

 I spoke to Jata Shankar, the station house officer of the Sikriganj police station. He said that the border of the Sant Kabir Nagar district had been sealed after one case of the coronavirus disease emerged there. “These people were ferrying people from one side to the other. We warned them, but they did not agree,” Shankar said. He added that there was no ban on selling vegetables. “They can sell vegetables but they cannot take people across the river,” he said. He claimed that the police had returned some of the boats, and would soon summon the owners of the remaining boats and return those as well.  

Sahni’s version differed significantly from the police. He said that the Mallah boatment were only trying to sell vegetables to earn money during the lockdown, and that they could not do so without crossing the river. “Here, every Mallah cultivates about fifty bighas of land around the river, growing small vegetables, which we sell in the Sikriganj market across the river,” Sahni said. “Now, the boats are broken and it will cost us many thousands of rupees to repair it. How will we get this money at this time?” I contacted Praveen Nishad, of the Bharatiya Janata Party, who is the member of parliament from the Sant Kabir Nagar constituency, to ask about the crackdown on the Mallah boatmen. His father, Sanjay Nishad, founded the Nishad party in 2016, which later aligned with the BJP. Praveen did not respond to my calls.

“Nishad,” a caste group listed under Other Backward Classes in Uttar Pradesh, is also used as an umbrella term for a larger community comprising many castes and subcastes, such as the Mallahs, Binds, Manjhis, Kewats, Kashyaps, Turhas, Majhwas, and Bathams, among others. Largely classified as OBC, these communities are all engaged primarily in fishing and boating, as well as growing vegetable and fruit crop along the river banks. In addition to this work, rural Uttar Pradesh’s Nishad community is engaged in daily-wage labour such as sand mining and manual work, with many migrating to large cities such as Mumbai and Delhi for work. In the state’s urban areas, Nishads are often engaged with the religious tourism and boating industries—Prayagraj and Varanasi, for instance, where water bodies are essential to the city’s economy, are primary centres of work for them.

With a moratorium on the movement of boats and on the fishing trade, and the shutdown of daily-wage work, this group of people have found themselves in a precarious position during the lockdown. Though the government has not banned the sale of vegetables, the restrictions placed on boating have in effect stalled the Nishad community’s ability to sell its produce. Some, like the Mallahs in Sant Kabir Nagar district, have reported facing a crackdown from the police. The community is in a disadvantaged social and financial position, owing to a history of caste oppression and government neglect. This position has only worsened in the lockdown—the government has offered little help to them. The Nishads are also faced with an uncertain future—even if the pandemic dies down soon, the rainy season will begin, further hampering their ability to work and earn. Many members of the community that I spoke to were fearful, and said the Nishads are on the brink of a deep crisis.

Shiv Kumar Nishad, who lives in Kotwalipur village in Azamgarh, is a poet. He runs a tea shop in his village. He said that the Nishad society, “does not have any concrete work.” He added, “Here, the presence of the Mallah community in jobs, in business and in agriculture is very low. The people of Nishad society are employed mostly in other cities, in small jobs like carrying loads, construction labourers, small business workers … scrap dealers, rickshaw pullers, auto drivers.” Owing to the nationwide lockdown, their work has come to a standstill. “By the time they open, their situation will be very bad,” Kumar said.

In villages, too, Nishads do small-time work, Shiv Kumar continued. He listed some common jobs held by the members of his community: “running small shops, fishing, farm labour, performers in marriages, growers of fruit and vegetables, running tea stalls.” The community is “not self-sufficient,” he said. “Women do the work of harvesting, mowing and sowing in the fields, but all these works are affected. Now the men, who are often in other cities, have also come back and are engaged in the work of threshing.” 

I also spoke to Saurabh Nishad, who is from Naroli village of Azamgarh district. Saurabh is the media in-charge of Eklavya Welfare Society, an organisation that works for the welfare of the Mallah community—another term used to refer to it is Eklavya. Saurabh explained that the fishing community, which is comprised of various disadvantaged castes, is marginalised throughout the nation. “Presently, 95 percent of the people of this society earn their livelihood by doing wage work,” he said. “Their main occupation is fishing, selling fish and boat running.” Saurabh said that at present families in his village, including children, were going to sleep hungry. “Once the lockdown opens, the rains will come, and that will last for another three or four months. This community will be out of work for almost six months.”

According to Harish Chandra Bind, a Nishad activist who resides in the Mirzapur district, the most important work for his community “is to catch fish and sell it. Only by killing fish can we say that about 75 percent of the families live their daily bread.” Bind is the national secretary of the Maa Ganga Nishad Raj Seva Samiti, an organisation that advocates for the rights of the Nishads, and has long been associated with Nishad movements. He studied economics at the Banaras Hindu University. “The men of our society are engaged in the work of fishing, which they do day and night. Some catch fish at night and sell it at dawn. Whatever is left, the women sell by putting baskets on their heads and ferrying them around.”

This work, too, only fetches them meagre wages. The price of the fish depends on their quality, Bind explained. Small fish can get between Rs 40 and Rs 50 for a kilo, and big fish are sold for between Rs 100 and Rs 200. But mostly only small fish are found in the rivers. Those fisherpersons who are close to or within cities get reasonable prices, but those that are far away are not able to do so—their customers, like them, are financially strained. 

The economic churns of UP’s Nishad community are also closely related to religious tourism, which has taken a huge hit during the lockdown. In eastern Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi, located on the banks of the Ganga, and Prayagraj, formerly named Allahabad, both record a large population of Nishads.

Vinod Nishad sails a boat at the famous Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi—Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency. “The status of the boatmen of Banaras is very bad,” he said, using an older name for the temple city. “The government is not paying any attention to them. There are 84 ghats in Banaras and the entire business is closed. We do not even know how long this will go on. The situation of the people of the Manjhi community”—part of the Nishad community—“who have come from the villages to sail boats here is worse. The government should give us permission to fish,” he said.

Rishi Nishad works as a boatman at the Triveni Sangam—a confluence of rivers that is considered holy by some sects of Hindus—in Prayagraj and is a member of the Allahabad Sailors Association. He named at least twenty ghats at which boatmen work in the city—Jhusi, Daraganj, Chhatnag, Mawiya, Sadiya Pur Karelabagh, Lwan Kala, Mohabbat Ganj, Bakshi Shaheed Pur, Raj Ghat and Sangam Ghat, among others. “Everyone is worried here,” he said. “This might pass but what will happen in the coming months? In the rain, the work stops completely.”

Pramod Manjhi, a boatman, is the general secretary of the Maa Ganga Nishad Raj Seva Samiti. He lives on Varanasi’s Shivala Ghat, and has been leading movements in the boatmen’s interests for a long time. “I am very worried,” he said. “The sailor community is stricken. We cannot even say when the tourism will start now. And after this, the rainy season awaits, in which we will have no work, and will anyway be in lockdown … These communities are on the verge of starvation. The government will have to provide some special facilities for this large population.” 

Bind explained that the Nishad community is tied to religious tourism not just through its work on the water, but also through smaller, related professions. “The people of our society also keep small shops in these religious cities, selling flower garlands to pilgrims, and so on,” Bind said. “Some people also work as tour guides … in nearby hotels, monasteries, temples, restaurants, and shops.” 

Tourists visit Varanasi and Prayagraj throughout the year, Bind said. “But it is worth noting that in these religious cities there is a government ban on fishing and farming and mining. So, the only means of livelihood is sailing. That is, earning by taking passengers on the ferries.” More tourists visit Varanasi throughout the year, while Prayagraj sees an influx of visitors in the holy “Magh” month, split across December and January. For most of the rest of the year, Prayagraj’s Nishad society has to find alternative means of works, Bind said.

Even in Varanasi, where tourists visit all year round, the work is not secure, he added. “This work is like earning and eating daily … it’s not like it’s some permanent or government work. Sometimes, tourists come, they get work. Sometimes, they have to be disappointed,” he said.

Bind further noted that tourism will continue to be impacted even once the lockdown is lifted. “The disease is not completely eradicated, and it is increasing constantly, so I do not think that the situation will be normal in the next one or two months,” he said. Even after normalcy, there will be a rainy season. And this season is crowded with regional tourists. People from far away come less. Overall, people associated with this business will have to struggle a lot in the coming days.”

 Since the lockdown began, Bind has been delivering relief material to the members of the boating communities in the villages of Mirzapur tehsil. “Hundreds of families there are struggling to eat even one meal,” he said. “Most people do not have a ration card. Even if they do, the ration seller rigs the quantity and does not give full ration.” Bind said that some members of the community did farm on the ghats of the Ganga, but that they did not own the land that they cultivated. “This land is mostly occupied by the people of the upper castes—one can say it is illegally occupied—and the Mallahs have to pay rent in return for farming.”

Mostly vegetables and fruits are cultivated on this land, such as cucumber, melon, tomato, garlic, pumpkin, and bitter gourds. The crops are sown by December or January at the latest. “Right now, the crop was ready for sale, but since the boats are banned, there is no way for the finished crop to reach the market,” Bind said. “Everyone is disappointed, because they will get nothing—this is not registered farming. That is, they are not registered with the department of agriculture, so there is no way to get government compensation. Now they will have to wait the rest of the year to farm again, which is a huge struggle for a poor person.” 

If the administration had allowed the farmers to at least travel from one bank to the other, they would have been able to earn some money, Bind added. “The government did not put a ban on the sale and purchase of vegetables, but these are just things they say, there is no impact of this on the ground.” 

 “The boating and fishing community is compelled to live a life of slavery even today,” Bind continued. “Even today, Nishads are oppressed by upper castes. It is common practice for their catch to be snatched away, for them to be beaten up, for their boats to be drowned.” Even the administration discriminates against them and endangers their lives, Bind said, “whether it is forcing the boats to ply during floods for rescue, or forcing the men into the water if someone is drowning.”

Bind’s words are borne out by a recent occurence in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghazipur district, where the troubles of the Nishads have been augmented by a police crackdown. Residents of Chochakpur village alleged that the police damaged and attempted to drown 80 small boats belonging to the villagers, and dragged all the bigger boats out of the water. According to Priyanka Nishad, a resident of Chochakpur, police personnel came to the village on the evening of 17 April, demanding that the villagers give them fish. She said that the villagers refused to hand over the catch. “The next morning, around 8 am, they came in three vehicles and began sinking our boats,” Priyanka said. “We have two small boats here. My husband works with those boats,” she added. “The policemen drowned them. As it is our condition was not good in this lockdown, and it will be even worse … now what shall we do?” 

Omprakash Nishad, another village resident, said, “When we got to know all this, we went running. The police began abusing us. They were lifting the anchor of all the boats, making holes in them, to sink them in the Ganga.” Omprakash said he had two boats, which the police damaged severely. “I used to catch fish, and fed my family with the earnings. We were already in a bad situation in this lockdown, and now I don’t know what will happen. Where will we get the money to get our boats repaired?” 

Rajesh Kumar Nishad was opening up his vegetable shop at the time that the villagers claim the police aattacked the boats. He, too, heard of the incident and ran towards the ghat where the villagers dock their boats. “I saw the police lifting the anchor of a boat. I have a small boat and a small vegetable shop, and I cultivate a little parwal”—pointed gourd—“on the other side of the river, that is how I support my family,” Rajesh Kumar said. He used the boat to cross the river and get to his vegetable crop. “I asked the policemen, ‘What is our fault?’ But they did not say anything and began drowning my boat.”

Kailas Chaudhary, another resident, had one boat that he used to catch fish. His earnings supported his family of five—him, his wife and three children. “I told the policemen that when it rains in a few months, they will need our boats,” he said. “If you sink it, it’ll fill with sand and be lost to the river.” The policemen did not listen, Chaudhary said. “It will cost thousands of rupees to repair the boats,” he said. “Now who will give us that?”

I contacted Dharmendra Kumar Pandey, the station house officer at the Karanda police station, near Chochakpur. He denied that the police had damaged or sunk the boats. “We did not sink the boats. The order of the administration was that the boats would not be allowed to ply,” he said. Pandey said that the police had received a report from the Intelligence Bureau, stating that the villagers were crossing the river, in violation of the lockdown. The police were investigating this, he claimed. “We are taking it in writing from the villagers that they will only go to bring vegetables from their fields, to see them and to sow new plants. In all this they will go to their fields alone and follow social distancing. There is no order for fisheries yet.” Sangeeta Balwant, of the Bharatiya Janata Party, is the member of the legislative assembly from Ghazipur. She, too, is a member of the Nishad community. My calls to her went unanswered.

The circumstances that the Nishad society finds itself in today are a direct outcome of a long history of neglect. “The government does not have any account of the people involved in this work—in fishing, in mining and so on,” Bind said. In the sailing-fishing Nishad community, “The level of education is very low, compared to other communities in the country.” 

Even in professions such as sand mining, where Nishads are employed in large numbers, increasing privatisation has made their financial prospects bleaker, and further endangered their lives . According to Bind, the privatisation of sand mining has hurt the Nishad community. “See, as long as the work of sand mining was in the hands of the Nishad people, they were ensured employment … the private players people have started using big JCB machines to make profit, due to which illegal mining has also flourished.” The increased mining has also led to massive erosion of the river banks, where many Nishads reside, he said. This has led their villages and settlements to be ruined by the tide and flood waters. Bind added that the increased pressure to mine more has further endangered boatmen. “Some people of the Nishad used to carry sand on the big boats of these contractors, but many people lost their lives in this work—the boats would overturn due to overloading,” he said. “But what to do? They have to work.” He added that mining work also coincides with the harvest season, before the rains begin. “Last year, mining was not done due to change in the government contracting system. And this time, the coronavirus lockdown.” 

Saurabh, the media in-charge of the Eklavya Welfare Society, said that in Nishad communities, “the level of education is very low, due to which they are unable to progress intellectually. So, they can be found at the lowest rungs—socially, economically, politically and culturally.” Currently, the community is struggling to receive even two square meals a day, Saurabh said. “The government and the private sector are getting their work done, but the community whose traditional professions are outside these areas is starving.”

Echoing Bind, Saurabh said that the government’s policies do not reach this disadvantaged community because it “is not visible in government data.” He continued, “Most of the fishermen society situated on the banks of rivers has always been a victim of neglect.  They have been the victims of untouchability—socially, they’re viewed with revulsion. Politically, this society has always been the victim of neglect, due to which its status remains miserable even today.”

Summing up the community’s situation, Bind said, “It can be said in simple words that they”—the Nishads—“are among the most deprived people of the country. Neither do they have any political representation, and their socio-economic conditions are pathetic.” He added, “Certainly, the people of this community will be the worst hit by starvation in coming days—this is becoming evident already.”