A day in the life of a boatman

"I have been sailing in the river since childhood. The river is my goddess and the boat, my life."

It is seven in the morning and the ghat is packed with the pilgrims and locals arrived to take a dip in the holiest river of India, the Ganga.

While the boatmen wait for their customers, lined up in one corner of the ghat, 71-year-old Jayant Kumar Shukla chants a prayer to the sacred river Ganga, before taking his boat into the river.

Shukla is the eldest among all boatmen. He has been a boatman since he was a child of thirteen.

"I have been sailing in the river since childhood. The river is my goddess and the boat, my life," Shukla said as he pulled the oars to move his boat forward in the Ganga as it passes through Bithoor town of Kanpur district in Uttar Pradesh.

There are about a 100 families of boatmen in Bithoor.

"I work day and night. When I am not in the river, even then I have to be alert that my boat doesn't flow away in the river. I make about Rs. 200 to Rs. 300 per day," Shukla said.

The boatmen of Bithoor take the devotees across the river. Sometimes, the locals hire boats to go to the nearby villages, too.

The monsoon season spells trouble for those who make their living by the river. Rainfall brings trouble for the boatmen as the number of people opting for boat-rides decreases as the level of water in the river increases. From the last week of June to the entire month of August, their lives go through a challenging phase. "Because of rainfall the river gets flooded and people fear to ride in the high tides. June, July and August bring us really bad times," said Purushottam Dwivedi, another boatman of the town. "There are times, during the rainy season we cannot even buy grocery," he added.

These brave men ply their boats in a limited area of the river. "We have to be careful while taking people to the nearby villages. We cannot go beyond the bridge because that area belongs to the fishermen. If we, by any chance, happen to move towards their area, they often attack us. So we have a limited area," Purushottam said.

There is gender equality among the boat people – even girls can become "boatmen". There are young girls, like 17-year-old Naina, who are working hard with the oars to earn their living.

Naina deals with the river like an expert. She ferries vegetables and goods on her boat. "My brothers carry passengers. But I only transport goods," she said.

The love for boats and the holy river Ganges remains common among all the boatmen in this small town near Kanpur. And it is their dedication to keep one of the most polluted rivers clean and pollution-free that is remarkable. "This river is the reason we can earn a living. Since we are not educated enough, we can never switch our profession. So it is our prime duty to keep the river clean and pollution-free," said Jayant Kumar Shukla.

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