Delhi Stories: Where the children plunge into a river of toxic sludge

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The Independent Online

India is a land of beautiful rivers - but not, sadly, in Delhi, where the Yamuna river that flows through the city is a slow-moving mass of glistening black sludge. The alluvial mud is augmented by sewage and chemical pollution, with the result that an unwholesome miasma hangs above the river.

India is a land of beautiful rivers - but not, sadly, in Delhi, where the Yamuna river that flows through the city is a slow-moving mass of glistening black sludge. The alluvial mud is augmented by sewage and chemical pollution, with the result that an unwholesome miasma hangs above the river.

But that does not discourage the children who live in the slums along the river bank from plunging into the slimy black waters, and emerging coated in a layer of black scum. Under the Old Yamuna Bridge they dive for coins dropped by passengers from the trains passing overhead.

There is a tradition in India of throwing coins into a river for luck at the start of a journey, and when the expresses pause on the bridge, waiting for the signals to change, a shower of one rupee coins rains down on the river from above. That is when the children seize their chance.

They don't have much time, because the coins quickly sink deep into the ooze, where they cannot be recovered, so the children dive into the waters with a cheap magnet to grab as many coins as they can. To help them get to where the coins are thrown, they have built makeshift rafts out of old polystyrene from the local dump, sewn up in discarded cement bags.

Sometimes they get as much as 10 rupees (12p) in a day. It doesn't seem a lot to risk your health in the filthy water for - but for these children it is a princely sum.

Delhi is full of strange and unexpected rules and by-laws. In a hurry to get to an important meeting recently, I felt my heart sink as the taxi I was travelling in was flagged down by the police and waved to the side of the road. What could the trouble be? We certainly weren't going too fast and we hadn't run any red lights.

But the policeman quickly revealed the driver's heinous offence: he wasn't wearing his uniform. Until then I had no idea there was a uniform. But the policeman was adamant. Apparently the driver's trousers and shirt have to be of identical colour and material, though the colour is the driver's choice.

The policeman was all for fining the hapless driver, but he managed to get out of it with the commendable argument that it was Sunday - and who wears a uniform on a Sunday?

Not all Delhi bureaucracy is so easy to get around. When I tried to get a broadband internet connection, I was told that my Indian visa, which had two months to run before renewal, was not long enough. What that has to do with an internet connection is not clear - since I had already paid a hefty deposit, and a visa is no guarantee the customer will not leave the country.

Nevertheless, the internet company would not be swayed. The contrast between that and the Foreigners Regional Registration Office, which provided me with a visa extension in under an hour, was remarkable.

The new visa was in order, but the man from the internet company said I would have to pay a new deposit. I had already paid, I protested. That would be refunded, he said. And it was.

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