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Cursed life of the blessed Nishad fisherfolk

Settled on the banks of Ganga, a few kilometres upstream of Allahabad, the Nishad fisherfolk find mention in the legends of Ram, having ferried him once across the river. However, today they are fighting a losing battle for survival. With a drop in fish catch, bigger players getting involved in the business, health hazards, and even threats at gunpoint, they are desperate for a means of livelihood.

“Sir, aapke udhar kuch kaam milega kya?” (Sir, could we find work from where you come?) is the first thing I am asked. It’s late afternoon, and of the many issues they talk about, another concern is the rising number of gharial (fish-eating crocodile) in the river.

It’s close to dusk when we push off from the village ghat, rowing away from the mainland towards a riverbank in the middle of a forest.

Three fishermen jump into the water, while others prepare to cast the net for a catch. The men wade through waters and are skilled enough to dive and catch fish that escape the net. After half an hour with the night sky upon us, everyone is back on the boat. The evening catch will suffice for dinner.

Fish curry prepared on a cow-dung-fuelled stove and a tomato-onion salad (for a vegetarian me), keeps us going as we await dawn. The fishermen tell me how the evening catch was barely tenth of what it was a decade ago.

Trawlers hired by businessmen outside the fishing community have made it difficult for the small-time fishermen to land a good catch. Industrial effluents make sure that whatever little the trawlers leave behind is taken care of too. A chemical leak a couple of months ago killed most of the fish in this stretch of the Ganga, they tell me. Kanpur, a hub of industries, is about a hundred kilometres upstream. Toxic waste also affects the fishermen, who spend hours in the river everyday, even drinking the river water. Some of them have contracted skin diseases that they try to cover with henna.

At first light, the fishermen row back into the waters. The next eight hours involve many rounds of jumping into the river, and casting the net that would come back almost empty. It took about six rounds and seven men to collect a catch close to 40 kilograms.

‘China’ made up for most of the catch, and then came ‘Kabai.’ A few ‘Saul’ and ‘Gosh’ came in, but the ‘Tengra’ seemed to be the most sought after.

On their way back, a few kilometres downstream of the village, the group is stopped by a pan-chewing bald man. What initially appeared to me as a usual dealing between a customer and seller soon turned into the man ordering the fishermen to return for another round of fishing and fetch him some Tengra.

I later learn that the man owns portions of land on which these fishermen sometimes stop and camp for the night when out fishing. In turn he demands favours, either politely, or at gun point.

The sorted catch is later sold at the local market. Exports to Kolkata and other cities stopped since prices dropped and local returns on the catch were now almost equivalent.

Considering 16 hours of daily effort — eight in the morning, and eight in the evenings — that bring uncertain diminishing returns and involves huge risks, it’s obvious why the task doesn’t appeal to the community anymore.

With their rights under strain from hooliganism, they now hope that educating their next generation will help level the playing field.

It is said that Lord Ram had blessed the Nishad community, ridding them of their social stigma of untouchability after they ferried him at the Ram Chaura Ghat across the Ganges. Perhaps it’s time for another intervention.

(The author is currently walking along the Ganges, documenting everyday stories of people residing along the bank for Veditum India Foundation’s project ‘Moving Upstream.’ He has already walked 2,000 kms from Ganga Sagar to Garhmukteshwar and will undertake the final leg of his journey towards Tapovan, the origin of Ganges, come spring)