Only a little over 1,100 licences issued as against 2,500 plus in 2001
Restrictions at the Sangam have put paid to the hopes of hundreds of boatmen at the ongoing Maha Kumbh Mela. The 55-day mega event is estimated to draw around 100 million visitors.
Only a little over 1,100 boating licences were issued this time as against the 2,500 plus in 2001, according to the Boat Testers Office.
Ajay Nishad, a boatman of the Mallah caste, repaired his vessel just for the mela. “We came here hoping that the Maha Kumbh would fetch us big earnings. But we are only just about managing to earn our daily bread… Business was good in the last Kumbh. We would get our licences every year with the same boats. We are helplessly watching an opportunity go by.”
The Mallahs are a traditional boating and fishing community, which falls under the Most Backward Castes in Uttar Pradesh. A recent announcement by the State government listed them among the 17 castes in the reckoning for Scheduled Caste status.
The mela administration has banned the ferrying of both “over-sized” and “under-sized” boats during the event. Boats that measure 24-29 feet in length with a carrying capacity of up to 50 passengers are termed ‘large’, while the small boats are a little over 10 feet in length and can carry just 6-8 persons.
According to a boating official, not wishing to be quoted, the administration fears that the large boats might sink the smaller boats. The small boats, he added, run the risk of being overloaded, thus also increasing the likelihood of an accident. “Why don’t they demarcate different routes for different sized boats rather than robbing poor people of their livelihood?” he suggests.
The restrictions are relaxed for the medium-sized boats, which typically measure up to 18 feet and can load 12-18 persons. The boats can run even on the bathing days, but on routes away from the Sangam, where most pilgrims prefer to go.
The checks, another official added, have also led to large-scale procurement of illegal boating licences.
Also, during the annual Magh melas, the Ardh Kumbh (held every six years) and the Maha Kumbh Melas (held every 12 years), pilgrims from neighbouring districts make the journey to the Sangam on large boats. It is likely that they have been deterred this year, the official said.
Boatman Ram Avadh Nishad, 40, says over-barricading and restrictions on movement have made the boats less accessible to the visitors. “Some ghats have been closed this time. And the administration has changed the routes in such a way that the pilgrims directly reach the Mela. Why will they take the boats when they can’t find any?”
As part of the security measures in place, it is also compulsory for the boatmen to deposit Rs. 1,500 each to procure a life-saving kit for their vessels. The regulation did not exist in 2001.
Moreover, some boatmen are also reeling under debts they incurred for the renovation of their boats.
This, when they already have to pay the boating unions, which determine their wage rates and number of passengers they can ferry per ride during the non-festive seasons. One fourth of the money they make per ride is paid as commission.