They dive for coins, save lives

Dozens of local divers fish out bodies, rescue people in absence of govt system

Be it bone-chilling cold water in winter, or rapid gushing flow during monsoon, 22-year-old Ali Khan’s ‘job’ begins at seven in the morning and goes on till visibility totally declines in the bed of river Yamuna.

Sometimes positioning himself on the banks of the river, sometimes under the pillars of the bridge and at times even in the river, years of experience have taught him to detect the exact locations where coins and other valuable offerings would come flinging down.

In the meantime, it has also given him a fair idea of locations from where people attempting suicide are most likely to jump and positions in the river where pilgrims could drown.

For decades now, dozens of divers like him, known popularly as gotakhor, have been fishing out bodies and saving lives in the absence of a concrete government system. It was no different this year when many people died during immersion of Ganesha idols.

Be it at the Yamuna bridge near ITO or Sur Ghat in Wazirabad, these locals worked for hours on end, warning people about the dangerous areas, saving those who were drowning and fishing out bodies.

“Police were pointing out to us the people in danger and we were rescuing them. Some 20 of us here saved more than 100 people,” claims 34-year-old Ganesh Nishad, a diver at Sur Ghat.

While their priority is to be on the lookout for devotees throwing coins in the river, they also stay vigilant round the year to rescue drowning people. “On an average, we save some 15 persons every month. Two weeks ago, a man jumped off the bridge. We rescued him, but he jumped again. We had to tie him up before calling police,” says Khan.

He says divers go on to counsel the saved souls on why they must learn to brave the odds in their lives. “It helps us to fight our problems too,” he says.

He claims to be one among many divers who had rescued scores of schoolchildren when a bus packed with 120 children had plunged into the river in 1997. Among the bodies they fished out, they often saw decomposed ones that have floated for days from other states.

“We immediately call police and hand over the bodies to them,” he says.

But for the divers, fishing out people is an easier job than fishing out coins. “We end up making only Rs 200-250 every day despite plunging into the water numerous times. On rare occasions we are lucky to land a tiny piece of gold or a silver trinklet,” says Nasir Ali, a 26-year-old diver at the bridge near Yamuna.

On days when he finds very few coins, he keeps himself sated even by retrieving brass, copper, iron and coconuts from the bottom. The strong flow of water makes the search difficult.

To avoid fatigue while fighting the current, they have tied long ropes to the bridge. “It helps us avoid drifting away with the water,” says Ali.

Knowing the most popular pillar of the bridge from where devotees fling the coins, they take turns to position themselves under it.

“We keep our heads up and stay on the lookout. As soon as someone throws something, we dive and try to catch it while it is still sinking. Finding the coins from the river bed is a difficult work,” he says.

“We close our eyes before we hit the bottom as the water is very dirty there. Only our hand does the work after that, feeling through the bed for the coins,” says Nishad.
The divers pocket as many coins as they can before they fall short of breath and are forced to surface. The process continues at one location for up to 15 minutes before they begin the treasure hunt at another location.

Some people look at them with disgust for collecting what is offered to the gods, but that has never deterred them. “Whatever is offered to the river gets purified after touching the water. So we are accepting only what has been accepted by the deity anyway. Considering the number of lives we save, is it really something to feel ashamed of?” Ali says.

The divers know their importance and value on the riverside and believe police know it too.

“Otherwise they wouldn’t look to us every time such incident happens,” Ali says.

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