The boatmen of Mirzapur are in troubled waters

Members of the manjhi community in Mirzapur earn their livelihood by rowing their boats in Ganga and helping people commute. They have still not recovered from the impact of last year’s lockdown. They fear another lockdown might just wipe them off.

Brijendra Dubey
| Updated: April 13th, 2021

Not all these boatmen own the boats they row. Many such boatmen operates boats on rent and have to share half of their earnings with the owner. All photos by Brijendra Dubey.

Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh

Rowing his boat towards the shore, a middle-aged Shyamcharan Manjhi anchored it safely on the bank of Ganga. About a dozen of passengers — local residents and villagers from neighbouring hamlets — disembarked Mirzapur’s most common mode of travel along the shores. Each of them handed over coins amounting to Rs 5 to Manjhi . 

His body glistening with sweat on a hot summer day, Manjhi sat on his boat to catch his breath and rest for a while at Mirzapur’s Gadgedi ghat, about 285 kilometres from Lucknow. “I have been ferrying the boats along Ganga ji (holy river Ganges) for about twenty five years now. A single passenger pays five rupees for the boat ride and my boat can accommodate twenty five passengers but it is rare for the boat to be full capacity,” he told Gaon Connection

The boatmen of Mirzapur are in troubled waters
Shyamcharan Manjhi

But that is not what worries Manjhi the most. His biggest concern these days is the fear of another lockdown, as state after state has announced night curfew and partial lockdowns. Last year, for almost three months, he had no work and no earning, and a family of six members to feed. 

Also Read: Will neither impose lockdown nor let people die in misery: Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi

“I make around five to six trips a day and there are around twelve to fifteen passengers in each trip. I earn around three hundred rupees a day with which I have to look after my family —  my wife, three daughters and a son — all of whom are dependent on me,” said Manjhi as he wiped the sweat off his forehead and face.

 Like most of the boatmen in the manjhi community — which dots the riverscape in the eastern Uttar Pradesh, their numbers anywhere between 2,000 to 20,000, depending on the city’s size — Manjhi is a landless individual whose livelihood entirely depends on ferrying people along and across the shore in Mirzapur. 

The boatmen of Mirzapur are in troubled waters
The issues faced by these boatmen of Mirzapur vary as per their family needs.

Nothing makes these boatmen uneasy like the question about another lockdown. Although the state Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath stated on April 12 that his government would not impose a lockdown as a measure to impede the spread of the coronavirus infection, self-employed individuals like Manjhi who earn just enough to survive are apprehensive about its possibility.

Also Read: With 168,912 new corona cases in last 24 hours, India becoming the world’s epicentre of COVID19 pandemic

Fifty-three-year-old Shyam Narayan, another boatman at the Gadgedi ghat, told Gaon Connection that during the last year’s lockdown no one used boats to travel. “For four months, we lived in a miserable condition, managing two square meals a day was all we would hope for,” he said.

“All our savings got exhausted, we have just begun to get our lives back on track. And now there is this news of rising cases of corona,” said Narayan “I fear another lockdown, it would completely shatter me and my family. If it happens, I will have a mountain of problems to face, but I am too tired for anything more now,” he said with a marked exhaustion in his voice. 

Also Read: The boatmakers of Balagarh and the changing tides of time

Not all these boatmen own the boats they row. Many boatmen like the 50-year-old Rampal operate the boat on rent. 

“The earnings are divided by half between the boat owner and me,” he told Gaon Connection. “I usually make around two hundred rupees a day. Hundred rupees is all I manage to earn after rowing the boat for six to seven hours,” said Rampal who has six family members. Rampal’s family “We barely survive the day. Lockdown will be harsh on us if it happens again,” he said. 

The boatmen of Mirzapur are in troubled waters
“We barely survive the day. Lockdown will be harsh on us if it happens again,” 50-year-old Rampal told Gaon Connection.

Also Read: Varanasi’s boatmen await tourists; 4,000 manjhis have switched their traditional trade

The issues faced by these boatmen of Mirzapur vary as per their family needs. Forty-year-old Jitendra Manjhi is native to the Dalapatti village and has a family of five – his wife, a daughter and two sons. The daughter is the eldest child and studies in class 12th. The two sons study in classes 10th and 9th.

“My children’s education is a major expense in my household. In the last year’s lockdown, I was out of my boating business for three months. Police were strict about the restrictions and it was difficult to manage my livelihood,” Manjhi told Gaon Connection.

Loans to repay

Similar are the concerns of 55-year-old Ganesh Manjhi who is native to a nearby Bhatwera village. He had recently borrowed Rs 12,500 to buy a small boat hoping to get back to business. “I had just bought a new boat last month and the government has again imposed night curfews. I am afraid if all this will lead to a full scale lockdown,” he told Gaon Connection. “The government merely thinks about its own problems but it doesn’t think of what lockdown would do to people like us.” he told Gaon Connection.

“During the lockdown, the government used to provide rationed wheat and rice but we had to manage the vegetables somehow. If the lockdown is announced again, I will have a tough time struggling for a living,” he added.

Manjhi’s neighbor, 45-year-old Raju also rows boats at the ghat. He told Gaon Connection that he availed a loan of Rs 200,000 from a private microfinance company  to get his boat built. “The loan was still being paid in increments when the lockdown was announced last year. Some boatmen were having a tough time surviving the lockdown so they used to hide from the police and used to stealthily row their boats on reserve (the entire boats booked by the passenger),” he said.

“Announcement of another lockdown would be a challenge for me and my family. I can’t even think of it,” he added.