UP Assembly Elections 2022: Who will the riverine Nishads vote for this time

The Nishad community has been deprived of their traditional rights to river systems; for them, the polls are a matter of survival

By Aman Gupta
Published: Thursday 17 February 2022
The Nishads are completely dependent on river systems; they traditionally extract sand, fish and ply boats. Photo: Aman Gupta
The Nishads are completely dependent on river systems; they traditionally extract sand, fish and ply boats. Photo: Aman Gupta The Nishads are completely dependent on river systems; they traditionally extract sand, fish and ply boats. Photo: Aman Gupta

“We live on these rivers, we ply boats on them, we catch fish from them, but the profits accrue to others,” Raju, who plies a boat at Rasoolabad Ganga Ghat in Prayagraj, says. Raju belongs to the Nishad community, a traditionally riverine caste that could play a major role in this month’s Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections.

The Nishads, who number 20 million in UP, are currently facing a serious crisis of livelihood. That is because their right over rivers is being taken away.

Raju and his family are completely dependent on the Ganga. But they have faced a livelihood crisis ever since fishing contracts were awarded.

Rambabu, a resident of a village adjacent to the Banda district headquarters, is a Nishad like Raju. He too faces a similar crisis. He used to extract sand from the river bed of the Ken and sell it. But now, his work has stopped.

He told this reporter:

We Nishads have been a river-based community for centuries. That is why we understand a riverine ecosystem better than anybody else. It is our centuries-old occupation to ferry tourists on a boat, extract sand from the river and catch fish. But for the last few years, there has been a crisis in our employment. We no longer dominate our own business.

Usha Nishad of Banda district works on social issues.

“The people of our community do not know any other work than what we have traditionally done. Now that we have become unemployed, where do we go? A lot of unemployed Nishads are doing other types of work under compulsion,” she said.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) initially banned all types of sand mining on rivers through an order passed June 24, 2018. Later, the same order allowed small machines to remove sand provided the main channel of a river was left untouched.

Usha said big traders were taking advantage of this NGT order.

“On the one hand, we (Nishads) are banned from sand extraction by hand and on the other, big traders do so with machines. The governments have given leases for five years. We do not have the means to afford such contracts,” she added.

Rambabu said his people know how to extract sand from the river in moderation by using hand-made appliances called ‘laggi’.

He noted that this would not be possible in the case of a modern appliance like an earth mover and more sand would be extracted. This would create an imbalance and affect the environment.

The Nishads also do not have much of a right on fish stocks in rivers.

Santosh, who works as a fisherman at the Swami Brahmanand Dam on the Birma river that flows on the border of Hamirpur district, said the right to fish in the dam was with a contractor.

“He put the fish eggs here. We just take the fish out for him for which we get money. Other than that, we have no right over this dam,” Santosh said.

He also noted that there were fish earlier in all rivers. But now, even small rivers are empty. Lack of water in smaller rivers and pollution in large rivers due to dams have led to the depletion of fish stocks.

The Nishads of Prayagraj and Varanasi have been facing other problems.

Amit from Prayagraj said the number of tourists in these cities had increased, but the community was not reaping any profit since cruises and steamers of had taken over the tourist traffic.

“We protested a lot to stop the cruise from being put on the river, but no one listened to us,” Amit said.

But it is election time now. The community accounts for eight per cent of UP’s voters. Which is why almost every political party is making promises galore to them.

The incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party is promising reservation for the Nishads. The opposition Samajwadi Party is talking about giving free boats to people from the community. The Congress is assuring rights over the river.

It is not possible to say at the moment as to which party the people of the Nishad community will trust. But it is certain that for them, this election has become a matter of survival.

Ramashankar Singh, a historian by profession, is writing a book on Nishad society. He said the community was in serious trouble at the moment.

“This community is a society with a traditional profession. It is very slow in adapting to change. That is why it lags behind. Whether it is removing sand from the river or fishing or boating, it uses the same ancient methods everywhere,” he said.

Singh added that community members did not want any interference in river systems on which their livelihood was dependent.

“If rivers are not saved, they will be destroyed. There is also a lack of awareness about the importance of education, which has resulted in backwardness. Governments have not made much effort either,” he said.

Govind Nishad, who is researching rivers and river communities at the GB Pant Social Science Institute, said the issue of affirmative action was important for the community.

“The Nishads want to be recognised as a Scheduled Caste (SC). A sub-caste, the Mazhwar (Majhi) has already been included in the SC category by the Government of Uttar Pradesh. Nishads say if one caste has been included in the category, others should be as well so that the benefit can trickle down to the whole community,” he said.

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