It sometimes amazes me how humans are able to find a source of livelihood in almost any type of environment, in accordance with their surroundings. Case-in-point, the coin divers of the Yamuna River, in Delhi, India’s capital city. This unique group of men works around the year, braving the bone-chilling cold waters even during winters, to dive into the river and retrieve coins from the bottom. The same coins that are thrown into the waters by passengers of boats crossing the river, as an offering to the River Goddess. Wondering what such an offbeat job pays? Well, sometimes as little as 100-200 rupees (US $ 2 to 3) a day, and sometimes as much as a diamond ring.
22-year-old Sartaj Ahmed has been in the profession of coin-diving for the past 6 years. The brave young man says he started diving when he was just a boy, but it was only when he turned 18 that he began hunting for coins. “Some days I get 100-200 rupees but on lucky days, I can find small trinkets. I have even found a gold ring once.” 34-year-old Sajad Ahmed has been at it for 20 long years. He says it gets harder and harder each other, but they really do not have any other choice. 21-year-old Amit Kumar, who’s been doing this for 10 years, says, “We dive into the river and collect coins, brass, copper, sometimes even silver and gold.” Diving for coins is the only source of his daily income. “What can be done, I have to do something for my living. We live here so we keep diving here.” Vicky, another young diver, says, “I dive and normally take home money for my daily expenses.” Raju says that he prefers coin diving because he doesn’t like working for a boss.
Photo: Meeta Ahlawat
It’s very easy work, they say, since they know exactly where the coins are. Sometimes, they actually witness devotees flinging coins, so they can dive for them immediately. And as trains pass by on the bridge over the river, they know to dive exactly between pillars numbered 8 and 9, because this is where all the devotees drop their money. The divers say it isn’t bad luck for them, taking the offerings of the devotees, because they believe that the holy water neutralizes all things evil that come their way. The diving technique is unique – the go in head first with their hands stretched out and feet up. They keep their eyes closed the whole time so their hands become their eyes when they search for the money. Each diving session lasts about 20 to 30 minutes, before they come out and try again at a different spot. The coin divers begin work at 7 or 8 in the morning and go on until they break for lunch, sometimes diving from the bridge and sometimes from the banks. The hunt for treasure continues post lunch, as long as the sun is in the sky.
The coin divers are so skilled at fishing things out of the river that their services are sometimes employed for other purposes. The Delhi police, for instance, takes their assistance in fishing out bodies that have been dumped into the river. They’ve even been issued official ‘diver’ ID cards by the police. Sajad likes this aspect of his job. “I feel like I’m doing my bit for the dead who have been denied a proper funeral,” he says.
Interestingly, the divers are pretty smart and have devised innovative ways to get coins out of the river. If the water’s too cold and they’re unable to go in, they use strong magnets tied to strings and that works really well for the newer coins. Now, there’s an interesting way to try ‘fishing for money’. Now, if you’re ever in Delhi and desperately in need of some change , you know where to look.