COVID-19 takes a toll on Chilika’s boatmen

As many as 10,000 boatmen have been looking for alternate sources of income

By Hrusikesh Mohanty
Published: Monday 14 June 2021
Boats anchored on the bank of Chilka, Barkul. Photo: By special arrangement

Rambha on the bank of Chilika — the Asia’s biggest brackish water lagoon in Odisha — wears a desolate look: Rows of empty motorboats lie anchored. The operators frantically look for customers, but most of them return home empty-handed.

“The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has robbed us of our only source of livelihood in the last two years. We would make ends meet by ferrying tourists to the lake,” said Bikram Behera (45), a boatman.

Out of job for over a year amid the COVID-19 outbreak, 8,000-10,000 boatmen in different jetties across reservoirs have been looking for alternate sources of income.

A majority of boat operators sourced their income by ferrying across 1100-square kilometre Chilika lake spread across three districts: Ganjam, Khurda and Puri.

“The state government must take action in this regard,” said Jogendra Behera, secretary of Maa Kalijai Motorboat Workers’ Union. He has sought financial assistance for the boatmen.

Boat operation in the lake stopped for six months in 2020 when the government imposed the country-wide lockdown to curb the spread of the virus.

Even as it was lifted in October 2020 and boat operations were allowed, their income remained affected as the tourist footfall was scarce, said Jalandhar Swain, secretary, Maa Kalijai Motorboat owners’ association.

“The restrictions were imposed again on March 15, 2021. Even if the state government unlocks in the coming days, the situation will not improve for the next three-four months because of the monsoons,” he said. 

Operation of boats will only resume in the month of October and will continue till March, when tourists visit the Chilika to watch the migratory birds. The visitors generally visit Kalijai temple, Nalaban bird sanctuary, Chadheihaga Mountain, Satapada to witness the dolphins.

Around 750 boats were operated in the Chilika from different jetties including Rambha, Balugaon, Satapada and Mangalajodi. The boatmen in Hirakud in Sambalpur, Balimela and Chitrakonda in Malkangiri, Chandabali in Bhadrak districts also faced similar challenges. 

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