Twenty-three-year-old Suraj ferries passengers between Gehwat and Raipur every morning, many of them carrying their bicycles on board. The boat ride over the river Rohini is the only way young men from the village can travel to their workplaces and children to schools.
The majority of people making this water commute are Nishads: boatmen as per the Hindu caste system. Despite a strong presence in 120 of the 403 assembly constituencies in UP, Nishads remain economically backward. However, they are tired of this status and a yearning for self-assertion in the community was evident when Hindustan Times traversed Nishad-dominated Gorakhpur and Maharajganj, some of the poorest districts in the country, on a boat.
Their motto for the upcoming election: “It’s high time we aspire to political empowerment.”
Disillusioned by parties, they recall the contribution of bandit-turned-elected representative Phoolan Devi to the welfare of the community. “Phoolan Devi became a rebel out of compulsion. We strive hard to survive,” said Vijaylaxmi Devi, 35, a home maker.
In 2016, community leaders tried to install a statue of Phoolan Devi at a park in Gorakhpur city (a BJP stronghold) to mark 15 years of her death, but were denied permission by the SP. “Let our government be formed, then it will be done,” said Dinesh Nishad as he de-boards to head to Gorakhpur in search of work.
Poverty and unemployment are some of the biggest challenges for the community. Dinesh , a resident of Gewat village in Gorakhpur, recently gave up boating as he was unable to feed his family on the pittance.
Now, like the majority of men in this part of UP, he climbs onto a boat every morning, pays ₹2 to cross the river Rohini, and heads into the city in search of daily-wage work.
“When I do not have money, Suraj (the boatman) does not charge me anything. He knows the plight of his people,” said Dinesh.
As he rows his boat across the two-kilometre stretch linking Gorakhpur and Maharajganj, Suraj voices the community’s anger with the political class.
“Politicians kept on making promises but our fate never changed. They became rich, we poorer,” he says. “If I get anything over Rs 100 in a day, it means a lot to my family,” he said.
His income suffers in the monsoon when the region is flooded by the release of excess water from the dams in Nepal.
Tired of being a vote bank, Nishads now want one of their own to represent them in power. “The population of Nishads is spread along the Ganga and the Rapti rivers in the state,” said PK Lahiri, a Gorakhpur-based historian and social worker.
“There are 122 seats in the state with nearly 70,000 Nishad voters each. This is good enough to bring a change,” said Sanjay Nishad, who floated a political outfit – Nirbal Indian Shoshit Hamara Aam Dal (NISHAD) –on August 16, 2016.
Sanjay plans to field his party’s candidates in over 100 assembly seats for 2017 elections. “Why can’t we become political power? We have had enough of looking up to others”.
To assert their presence, Nishads are holding rallies at several places in the lead up to the polls .
“I begin the day at 4 am and hardly return home with anything. Why should I not vote for someone who listens to my woes?” asked Anuj, 19, a fisherman.