You may have never heard of them but a team of 13 divers, nine from the same family, have been diving deep to save people from drowning & fishing out the dead from the depths of the Yamuna. Despite risking their lives on a daily basis, the Delhi Boat Club divers are on a low-pay daily wage with no medical insurance.Sangeeta Yadav brings you their unsung story
When the entire nation was celebrating the 70th Independence Day on August 15, 2016, 22-year-old Manish Mishra, a resident of Ghaziabad, decided to do something unusual on the banks of Yamuna. He and his 11 friends went swimming but due to a strong current, he was carried away into the deep. His friends tried to save him but couldn’t reach him. At 1 pm, the Delhi Boat Club got a distress call and the entire rescue unit rushed to the spot. But, after hours of a sustained rescue mission, Manish could not be traced and was eventually declared dead. Manish’s body is yet to be recovered and his family lives in hope. The divers are still searching under a rescue mission stretching from Sonia Vihar to Jaitpur.
Like Mishra, there have been many cases where people have drowned not just in the Yamuna but also deep under canals. Some bodies were found and some couldn’t. For the divers, work never ends as the family of missing persons pins hope on them. So they risk their life to trace the bodies. Little do people know that the Delhi Boat Club’s divers are the only emergency unit present to save people living from the Yamuna, floods and other such vagaries.
Be it a deadly snake or insect bite, or escaping crocodile attacks or illness due to gases emitted from filthy river waters, the 13 self-taught divers face all risks to save people who drown inadvertently or jump into the water to attempt suicide. They also help the police in finding the bodies from 40 to 50 feet deep waters and search for weapons that may have been used by criminals into the canals.
“From a nosepin to coins to weapons to bodies, we fish out anything that we are asked to. It all started when we were children and used to swim in ponds and dive into the river to collect coins thrown by devotees. Sometimes we would manage to collect between Rs 200 to Rs 500 in a day . At times, we used to find jewellery lost while some woman was taking a dip or washing clothes. We used to love diving and having fun in the water but never thought that this would turn into a full-time profession,” 26-year-old Imraan Khan tells you.
Delhi Boat Club, which comprises 13 divers, four riders and guards, is the only emergency service that rescues people in Delhi NCR. Harish Kumar, in-charge of the club for the last 10 years, says they get rescue calls every day from across Delhi-NCR.
“This year, we have so far received 125 calls and pulled out 104 bodies from the Yamuna and canals. We saved four from drowning. Last year, we got 224 calls out of which 148 bodies were recovered and five people rescued. While finding bodies is our job, but for the family it is all about emotions and closure. Finding of a body gives them clarity and helps them in legal issues like insurance claims, etc,” says Kumar, who was earlier with the Flood Department in Delhi Government.
Of the 13 divers, nine are cousins and hail from Jagatpuri village in Wazirabad. The eldest brother Rahid Ali (30) is a Class IX passout who joined the Boat Club in 2009 as a diver at the age of 16.
“When we were children, we used to dive in our village pond to have fun. Then I got to know that contractors were hiring divers for a rescue mission. I gave it a try. The contractor took me to the site and said that I would only get selected if I passed this trial run. I was asked to fish out a body as fast as I could. I was also asked to dive deep without any oxygen mask. I passed all the tests. Around that time, my father passed away and all the responsibility came on to me. I had to stop my studies and took a diver’s job full-time. My brothers, later joined the team,” Ali says.
“We can dive as deep as 60 feet with no oxygen masks and find anything within minutes. It brought in the much needed money and the family was happy,” 24-year-old Nayeem Khan tells you.
Interestingly, the nine of them are nephews of Abdul Sattar who once made headlines by having saved over a 1,000 lives in his lifetime.
“He was our uncle and we have grown up seeing him saving lives of strangers. He was 15 when he started rescuing people and we followed in his footsteps. In 1997, our uncle was honoured for saving 90 schoolchildren when the bus carrying around 120 children fell into the Yamuna near the Wazirabad Bridge. The place is also infamous as a suicide point. Children also come to take a dip into the river here and get swept away by strong currents,” 26-year-old Intazaar tells you.
The challenge for these young divers is not the mission per se but the fact that they have to plunge into filthy canals without bodysuits and oxygen cylinders. “The canals carry nothing but filth. Factory chemicals flow into them. If you take a dip into the Seelampur canal, your body turns purple. Eye infections, insects bite severe rashes and nose bleeds are common for us,” Khan reveals.
Also, sometimes, the condition of the body is so bad that the divers face a challenge.
“If the body has been in the water for more than 24 hours, it starts to decompose and stinks. Insects prey on it and when we pull it up, hand and leg sometimes fall apart and we have to dive again to get the limbs out. The body stinks so much that even family members refuse to touch it,” Khan tells you.
Recounting an incident, Ahmed tells you that
“In June 2016, a 23-year-old woman along with her four-month-old baby girl was murdered by her husband. He put the two in the car and pushed the vehicle into the Bawana canal. It was around 2 am when we got a call and rushed to the site. We found the car and tied it with ropes so that it didn’t move away under the current. It was very difficult to take out the bodies as the woman had a seat belt on and the car was in a bad position. Night rescuing is very difficult as there are snakes and other poisonous insects which you can’t see and one can get bitten,” Ahmed tells you.
The Bawana river canal, one is told, is the most dangerous as there is no barricade and the current is strong. Thus, the maximum number of cases took place here.
“Around 35 bodies have so far been recovered from Bawana canal this year. In 2014, 49 bodies were found. In 2013, the number was 47. Due to the strong current, it takes a lot of time for divers to rescue people as compared to other rescue points which require only 10-15 minutes. Sometimes angry villagers and families who have lost a dear one block roads, creating a law and order situation and making it difficult for the rescue operation to be carried out,” Kumar says.
To top all this, there are crocodiles too in these waters. In one mission at Gorakhpur, where these divers were pressed into service to bring back a body, they barely managed to escape crocodile attack.
“An engineer had fallen into the risky waters from an under-construction flyover and we were approached by his company to search his body. During the operation, we came face to face with a crocodile. How we managed to come out of that attack only God knows. We were very lucky that day,” Azaruddin, another of these daredevil brothers, recalls.
During Ganesh visarjan and Vishwakarma puja, devotees are at huge risk.
“Murti visarjan should be prohibited in the Yamuna. During festivals, we barricade treacherous stretches but the devotees break these barricades and fall into the water. To control the situation, we deploy police force. In 2012, the Ganesh visharjan and Vishwakarma fell on the same date and people came in large groups to celebrate at the Yamuna bank. We saved 35 people from drowning that day,” Kumar recounts.
The lack of manpower is another issue that the authorities are struggling with.
“With only 13 persons to run the rescue mission across Delhi-NCR, it becomes difficult to reach the spot on time and rescue people. If we are rescuing someone, say, at Jaithpur, and we get call for Bawana, the unit has to split and rush to the other spot. What we need are more trained divers,” Kumar says.
Kulanand Joshi, District Magistrate and Deputy Commissioner, East, says that recruitment of another 30 divers, especially from Civil Defence Services, is on the anvil.
“Calls from the 1077 helpline number of the District Disaster Management are passed on to us but we don’t have any separate helpline number. To create public awareness around our unit, we are planning to advertise about them and also increase the patrolling. We want the Residence Welfare Authority to run awareness campaigns as children often come to take a dip in the deep waters during summers. We will put more sign boards across danger zone and want funds for barricading the risky areas,” Joshi says.
Then there are fake calls to take care of as well, which can’t be ignored and yet there is no provision to take action against the pranksters.
“Once we got a call from ITO that a girl had drowned in the Yamuna, and her Alto car was parked on the bridge. We searched for her body and after two days, the police found out that she was in Malviya Nagar at her sister’s place. People, who raise such false alarms for mischief, need to be punished,” Kumar feels.
Since the divers are on call 24X7, their family commitments take a backseat. There have been so many times when these divers have just sat down for dinner when a call came and they’ve rushed out without eating.
“On March 3, 2016, our aunt died but we couldn’t go to our village due to a rescue mission. The same day, we lost our sister in an accident. She was driving down to the village for the last rites of our aunt. We lost two lives within 24 hours. It was a moment of great despair in our family. We were preparing for the funeral, when we got a rescue call and had to leave everything and rush to the spot,” Ahmed recalls.
But despite working 24X7, the divers get no medical facility. If they take leave for treatment, their daily wage gets cut.
“There is no medical facility and we have to spend from our pocket if we get ill or injured during a mission. If we take sick leave even for a day, we don’t get paid for that day. We get no respect for the work we do. Sometimes, we catch infection and get bitten by poisonous water snakes. We take an injection and get back to work. In 2013, I was on a rescue mission at Seemapuri where we saved a man from drowning but in the process got badly cut up due to broken glass bottles in the canal. I had to get eight stitches on my calf. Nobody paid for that,” Intazaar says.
It was in September last year that the brothers were enrolled as Civil Defence volunteers.
“We were hired by a contractor for Rs 3,500 for round-the-clock work. Sometimes, we get paid less and not always on time. Five months ago, our salary was increased to Rs 8,000. Last year, we got employed on daily wages as Civil Defence volunteers for which we went through various tests. We now get Rs 15,000 a month. But it is still less considering that we have to pay everything from our own pocket. We have children whom we want to send to good schools but that’s not possible. We want to get selected under the permanent pay roll category and get deserving remuneration. But for that, they look at our education where we lack. They don’t see the kind of service we do,” Abdullah rues.
It is not just the pay package, but basic safety issues too.
“Oxygen cylinders are important for us. Though we can dive without them, we feel the need for them in areas where the water is filthy like the Seelampur sewer. We don’t even get basic amenities like soap, clean water and towels,” Nayeem says.
During monsoons, these divers are on extra alert. They have 14 boats and 13 motorboats and if they require more, the flood department helps them.
“We divide ourselves into various units and patrol the Yamuna and other sites. If the water level rises, we evacuate people and animals living nearby. On August 13, 2016, the water level of the Yamuna rose and we had to shift 50 people from Bidadi into tents at Wazirabad. It took us the entire evening and night to do this. In 2013, we shifted 40 buffaloes from the Wazirabad canals to higher ground,” Kumar tells you.
Recognitions do come but rarely. Six months back, a woman tried to committee suicide by jumping off from the Geeta Colony flyover. The team rushed to the spot and rescued the woman who was still floating with the current. The two people who rescued her were awarded by the police of that area.
(The article got published in The Pioneer Newspaper – http://www.dailypioneer.com/sunday-edition/sunday-pioneer/special/delhis-daredevils–no-one-knows-of.html)