Old coins, new coins, out-of-stock coins -- nothing escapes the eyes of the boys who jump into the city's water bodies like the Mithi river that flows between Mahim and Bandra, to collect coins thrown by pious train commuters. At the risk of health ailments, and reviled by a middle-class that refuses to see their effort as work, these boys are the unexpected green soldiers of our city
On the rare occasion when Jayshree Jethwa, a middle-class housewife from Kandivli, boards the second class compartment of a crammed Churchgate-bound train with her three children, she makes it a point to put a few coins into her 14 year-old son Aashu's pant pocket.
After crossing Bandra, as the stench of the Mithi river (or Mithi nalah, as it is aptly called) wafts into the compartment, Jethwa signals her son to remove the coins. Grabbing a few, she fights her way to the nearest window, touches the coins to her forehead, and making a wish, flings them into the river.
A few metres ahead, under the bridge parallel to the railway track, three young boys jump in. A commuter may assume that they are 'mucking about'. But if you stop and watch them closely, you'll see that they are hard at work.
Roshan and Sameer (names changed), are among several 20-something year old homeless boys who spend eight to 10 hours every day diving into many of Mumbai's toxic water bodies, including Mithi river, Powai lake, and Vihar lake close to Powai, hunting for coins that millions of Mumbaiites like Jethwa throw into them.
The boys dive to the bottom of the river, scoop out muck in their hands and sift through it. On a good day, they collect anything between Rs 50 to Rs 100, by jumping into at least two water bodies. Sometimes, they also find old coins and jewellery that they sell to 'collectors' for a price they don't get to fix.
But while at it, the boys put themselves at the risk of a host of health problems, including skin ailments, and in some extreme cases, skin cancer. "Anyone even entering a nalah with sewage and toxic waste has extremely high chances of developing rashes and skin infection. In fact, if the water body has certain metal waste, they can even develop skin cancer," says Dr Nina Madnani, consulting dermatologist with PD Hinduja Hospital, Mahim.
Sameer, who left his house 13 years ago, claims he has never had a rash, infection or skin disease. "We are used to this; nothing happens to us and even if it does, poor people like us don't have a choice but to continue," he shrugs.
The more vocal of the two, Sameer ran away from Mathura while he was in school, because he "wanted to see the world". Roshan too ran away from home in Kolhapur, "a few years ago."
"Initially," says Sameer, "I roamed across India. Then I reached Mumbai. I was always a good swimmer, and to survive, I started diving into lakes and rivers to hunt for coins and precious items that people threw. I did the same thing in Delhi, diving into the Yamuna," Sameer reveals.
"Everyone assumes there are jobs available freely in this city, but that's not the case," he says.
The commerce of coins
According to Vimlendu Jha, executive director of Swechha, a youth-run, youth-focused, New Delhi-based NGO engaged in issues of environment and social development, Sameer's story is similar to that of boys who dive into the Yamuna river to fish for coins.
For them too, this is a source of income, which comes with severe health hazards and no option but to continue, in order to make a living.
However, Sameer reveals that of late, their collection has gone down.
"First, the cost of living has risen. Then, the younger population does not believe in the tradition of throwing coins into rivers. So the Mithi doesn't throw up half as many coins as it used to. Powai lake is a better option as rich people live nearby and throw loose change into the lake," he explains.
As this reporter, posing as a researcher, spoke to the boys, two elderly men walked past. They didn't seem too pleased and asked the boys what they were doing, and why weren't in the river. The boys stood up respectfully and bowed their heads. The men eventually revealed that they were "father figures" and bought the 'special things' that the boys found at the bottom of the river.
"We buy old coins that they find, and later exhibit them," said one of the men, who didn't wish to be named.
He didn't reveal where they exhibited the coins either, or how much he bought them off the boys for.
Jha says this is a regular occurrence. "There are regular instances where these boys find jewellery and precious old coins that they then sell to coin collectors."
Exploitation at the hands of 'father figures' is only one of their concerns.
Madnani says they are at risk of a number of health ailments, but adds that their bodies could have got immune to the effects of toxic water if they have been exposed to these conditions over a stretch of time.
Bound by poverty
Unlike a lot of other traditional jobs such as cobblers and waste collectors, coin divers don't belong to a specific caste. "It's purely a class-based job that the poorest of the poor in the society indulge in. They don't have any other means of employment; they are young, good at swimming and have the stamina to pull this off every day. Also, you don't require any license or investment to do this work," explains Jha.
Albeit unknowingly, boys like Sameer and Roshan, and others who do odd jobs such as waste picking, end up doing the city a huge favour � they collect and recycle tonnes of waste that the city generates every day.
When Roshan and Sameer dive to the bottom of the river and collect muck in their hands, they throw that much out so that they don't have to sift through it again.
"Boys like Roshan and Sameer don't even know how they are helping the city. They clean the Mithi river just before it meets the Arabian sea in Mahim. Yet, these are the same boys who are troubled by the authorities, because they are soft targets and can't defend themselves," says Abhishek Bharadwaj, founder of Mumbai-based NGO Alternatives Realities.
According to a 2008 survey carried out by NGO Alternative Realities on the mode of income of homeless citizens:
34.01% homeless work as casual labourers
19.44 % have petty businesses
8.78 % are employed
18.47% do odd jobs (waste picking, waste recycling, coin collecting, cloth piece collecting)
(sample size of 1,332 people)
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