Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday said the boatmen of Varanasi, his parliamentary constituency, would have “laddus in both hands” once a cricket stadium he had just laid the foundation for came up in the temple town and transformed its economy.
“Laddus (sweets) in both hands” signifies prosperity. But several Varanasi boatmen told The Telegraph that two of Modi’s past decisions had left them with a bitter taste and they were therefore sceptical of his latest promise.
“Big events will be organised when such a big centre for sports is built. Spectators and players will arrive in large numbers,” Modi said while symbolically laying the foundation for the stadium, in the Ganjari area on Varanasi’s outskirts, by unveiling a plaque through remote control from the dais.
“It will benefit hoteliers, small and big eateries, rickshaw and taxi drivers. And the boatmen will have laddus in both hands,” he added.
On the dais were the country’s cricketing who’s who, including Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath, Kapil Dev, Ravi Shastri and Sachin Tendulkar along with BCCI president Roger Binny and vice-president Rajiv Shukla.
Pradeep Bajrewala, one of Varanasi’s 1,100 boatmen who make a living ferrying tourists and devotees, was unimpressed.
“The Prime Minister should know that his demonetisation of 2016 and his decision to start a river cruise here (under the Centre’s Namami Gange project) last year has already destroyed our livelihood,” he told this newspaper over the phone.
“In the aftermath of the demonetisation, a large number of our regular clients stopped coming to Varanasi. Some of us couldn’t exchange our Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 notes because of the long queues at the banks.”
Bajrewala said that any increased inflow of outsiders because of the stadium was unlikely to help the boatmen.
“Tourist arrivals have increased in recent years, anyway, because of the hype around the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor, but they all want to take the cruise service,” he said.
“Also, we have heard that there would be taxi boats (covered motorboats), which will hit us further as we ply only the traditional rowing boats.”
Bajrewala said the boatmen earned between Rs 700 and Rs 800 on an average day before the demonetisation but the figure had now fallen to Rs 300-400.
Pramod Majhi, one among a few who ply CNG-driven, uncovered boats on the Ganga, said: “In the last two years, many boatmen have spent more on repairs of their
CNG boats than they have earned. I want to tell Modiji that he has destroyed us. Now he is planning to have taxi boats, but we will never allow them here.”
Modi, addressing Varanasi residents as “my family members”, said cricket today connected India to the world, with more and more countries taking up the game. He said the stadium would seat more than 30,000 people.
“I know that every Kashi resident has been happy ever since they saw the image of the proposed stadium…. The design of the stadium is dedicated to Mahadev,” he said, without elaborating.
Varanasi now has a small cricket stadium that seats about 300 people.