“This isn’t your Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai,” Sahni says, never looking away from the rough edge of a newly built hull, which he is slowly smoothing out. “This is UP-Bihar. Here you will have and can only have the mafia.”
Sahni is vice secretary of the Varanasi Nishad Raj Kalyan Samiti, one of several groups that represent the Nishads, a boatman caste who are also called Mallahs. Along with the Binds, who till the land along the Ganga, and the Macchhuaras, the fishermen, the Nishads are the true owners of the great river that is given lip service by every politician who travels through Varanasi.
The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi said he had decided to contest from here after “Maa Ganga” had called him. The Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal has made the Ganga a central plank of his manifesto for the constituency. And the Congress’ Ajay Rai, the only local leader among the three in the lead, insists no outsider will be able to understand the spiritual significance that the river has for Varanasi’s residents.
And yet none of the three will be getting the votes of one large chunk of Nisha-Bind-Macchhuara voters, the people whose lives are intricately connected to the river. Two weeks ago, members of the Maa Ganga Nishadraj Sewa Samiti — another organisation that represents the people of the Ganga — realised no one was really listening to their concerns, so they decided to collectively vote NOTA (none of the above).
“They all spoke of Ganga Maiyya, but nobody was willing to come and talk to us,” said "Guru" Vinod Nishad, who founded the organisation. “So we made the decision to press NOTA, and publicised it.”
The problems of the locals from the community all revolve around the river. They are not always allowed to ply their boats without being hassled. Nishad also said Binds and Macchhuaras are regularly picked up by the police if they stray too far away from home. No licences have been handed out for motorboat owners for nearly two decades, because of a stretch of the river considered a wildlife protection zone.
“This is our river. We own it,” said Ajay Nishad, a boatman. “So getting a licence, deciding who can be on the river, this should be in our hands. The people who run the hotels on the Ganga, they are the ones ruining the river, and they are hand-in-glove with the police. The government needs to give power back to the people of and on the river.”
Then there are environmental concerns, starting with the state of the water. Every candidate has mentioned cleaning up the Ganga, yet according to Jhatkaa, an advocacy group, and Varanasi’s Sankat Mochan Foundation, none of the three leading parties have committed to their five-point agenda based on the Ganga Action Plan that was put together in the 1980s.
Despite this, Deepa Gupta, the Executive Director of Jhatkaa, said the increased focus on Varanasi has made her optimistic about chances that there will be some action.
“It’s a huge deal that it has come into the political limelight, which is a good thing,” Gupta said. “ There will be a higher ability for us to hold the government accountable. My actual concern is whether they will take appropriate action… will they implement technology that is appropriate for Indian conditions, and will they be transparent with the way they spend their funds?”
Having said that, Gupta also pointed out the “fight to the bottom” between the BJP and the Congress that had taken place last week, with either side attacking the other over whether they can actually clean the river.
Sahni, the boat-builder, also said keeping the river clean should be the first point of every candidate’s agenda. “The first thing they should just do is ban all plastic from Varanasi,” he said. “You see the state of this river? That’s because of all the plastic that comes into it.”
Oddly enough, one party appears to have been the most active on this front — and it’s not one of the big three in Varanasi. On May 9, three days before the election, the Maa Ganga Nishadraj Sewa Samiti overruled its own decision about voting NOTA and decided to support the Samajwadi Party candidate instead. Nishad said this decision had been taken after the party approached them and promised to take into account all their concerns.
“No one else came to talk to us, except SP,” he said. “Their karyakartas came to our panchayat, and said they will do work for our castes. They said they will help stop the police misbehaviour, they will assist with the licences and improve the river. Whether they win or lose here, they are in the state government and they do have some power to help us. So we have decided to support them.”
The SP’s candidate was one of only two parties, along with the Community Party of India (Marxist), to fully pledge to Jhatkaa’s five-point agenda — although AAP did make positive noises about the programme.
“If they can do the basics for us, that’s all we want,” Nishad said. “What do the people of the Ganga want? To be able to ply our boats, plough our land and catch our fish in peace. That’s all.”