Varanasi's Mallah community demands socio-economic tug

Lack of education is the primary reason for the socio-economic backwardness of the Mallah community

Credit : Shubham Patil/Snehal Mutha

Snehal Mutha | Varanasi | Under the bright sun, on the banks of Varanasi Ghat, a decent-looking man was waiting for passengers to get his boni (first pay of the day). Moti Manjhi started rowing the boat at the age of 17, today he is 29 years old. Manjhi never received a formal education, citing financial and familial responsibility. He says, “Jhuggi (hut) mein rehne wale log kaise padenge, jo hai who yahi hai. (How can people living in huts afford to school? This is all I have.) I had no option other than to take up our traditional work.”

Manjhi belongs to the Mallah community, which is a subcaste of Nishad community. Lack of education is the primary reason for the socio-economic backwardness of the Mallah community. Moti and others like him are dependent on the traditional business for a livelihood when education is not handy. If this space is further shrunk by other people, it will impact their livelihoods and economic status. For instance, the Kashyap community in Western UP was traditionally involved in the sugar production business. However, due to the high cost of capital in the sugar industry, the dominant castes created their space in this business, leaving the Kashyaps to work just as labourers. 

The Mallah community protested against the Alaknanda cruise boat at Varanasi Ghat. UP tourism department initiated the luxury vessel to promote waterways tourism in the state. 


Question of Reservation

“We are unable to afford education, as our livelihood itself is in a fragile state. It is not easy for every Nisadh to get admission at Banaras Hindu University (BHU). We are demanding reservation, to get a reserved quota in education and jobs, so our struggle at least minimises at the admission level," says Harishchandra Bind, a student activist, who is one of the first-generation learners from his community. 

Nishad community consists of subcastes Kewat, Dhiwar, Dhimar, Turha, Mazwar, Chai, Rakwar, Bind, Kashyap and Mallah. Nishads belong to the Other Backward Caste (OBC) category. Mallahs inhabit the lower rungs of the highly heterogeneous faction of OBC comprising more than 45 caste groups in Uttar Pradesh (UP). Nishad community has a total population of 17.5 percent. 

Several political parties tried to woo the Nishad voters, considering their decisive role in UP politics. The parties promised reservations to Nishads, their long-standing demand of sub-quota within 27 percent OBC reservation and ultimately Scheduled Caste (SC) status. All parties failed to fulfill their demand. 


Darshan Nishad. Credit - Snehal Mutha


Darshan Nishad says, "Students drop out after 8th grade, citing financial limitations for attending higher classes. Junior college students from poor backgrounds fail to crack entrance exams of Colleges such as BHU, Mahatma Gandhi College, etc. SC status will help students get confirmed scholarships." 

According to Rama Shankar, author of the book Nadiputra, “Reservation won't benefit immediately, it will take time. The earliest focus must be on protecting their livelihood. For Nishads to live dignified lives, they must have access to rivers for practicing respective professions.”


Need of welfare system

The Mallahs are historically known as Marshall Comrade due to their wisdom of fighting on waters. The primary occupation of these communities is fishing, boating and growing vegetable and fruit crops along the river banks. In rural UP, the community is engaged in daily-wage labour, including sand mining and manual labour. Most of them migrate to large cities. Most of the Mallah occupations are less paid and have no welfare system in place. 

"Forget welfare, local police misbehave with us, forcefully take our Mahajal (net) to remove corpses from the Ganga, we don't even get paid properly. We save people's lives, risking our own. All we get is the tag of Police Mitra (Police Friend). This way we won't flourish. Police often pay with some cash and alcohol. Thus, reinforcing the stereotype of alcoholism,” says Darshan. 

Gotakhors are net weavers and undesignated live guards working on river banks across Uttar Pradesh. There is no state-sanctioned mechanism to pay them for their labour of retrieving bodies from the Ganga. Gotakhors demand jobs in rescue operations of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF). "During floods, Gotakhors are asked to engage in rescue work, why don’t they hire us," adds Darshan.


What are the Nishads demanding?

"Nishads must be preferred for sand mining lease tenders, as they have customary rights over the ghats," says Rama Shankar. 

People leaving in Eastern UP, especially the Trans-Yamuna regions of Allahabad, Kaushambi and Chitrakoot districts depend largely on sand mining. The government has banned mining to prevent the sand mafia from doing illegal mining. In February 2021, 20 families were manhandled in Baswar village, boats were destroyed as an action against illegal mining. However, it has affected the local boating community. 

"We are suffering due to the ban, not mafias. We several times demanded that mining leases should be issued only on registration of boats and mining permits," says Munna Nishad. 

Over the years, Mallahs witnessed a rapid socio-economic transformation and occupational diversification, moving from water-based livelihood patterns to settled agriculture. Farming adds to be a complementary source of income to fishermen, sailors. Mallah demands pattas on kachar lands (the land adjacent to the river, which becomes cultivable after the waters recede) for the cultivation of seasonal vegetables and fruit crops such as cucumbers, pumpkins, parwal, and more. 

"The mafias also have control over the river bed farming. Today anybody can claim this land and do farming. Poverty has prevented us from getting land for farming," says Munna.


Boats destroyed in Ghazipur


One of the demands of Nishads is that the government should help them rehabilitate to rebuild their life. During floods, people living riverside face the huge problem of Katan, which means the entire house drowns in water, leaving it in a destructive position. The State Government sanctioned budget for dam repair work, but work is yet due. For instance, CM allocated Rs 3.5 crores for Jayaramkol village. 

Besides reservations, there are no discussions on the above problems. The political parties are eyeing their votes, but have little idea about Nishads livelihood issues. 

"Discourse on Reservation is to attract Nishadh voters, we are 20 years behind in terms of growth. Mallah had money, strength, and wisdom, but couldn’t document all of it," exclaimed Harischandra.

The BJP used Ramayana, Nishadhraja folklore and other Hindu texts to bring various OBC castes together for their political victory. Unveiling the statue of Manohar Lal Kashyap, the installation of a 51-feet statue of Lord Ram hugging Nishadraj will not help in resolving the livelihood problems of Nishads. It is crucial to provide educational and employment opportunities and empower their traditional livelihood sources. The Nishad community should be consulted for making any welfare policies for them.