The Sand Cowboys
About fifteen or twenty kilometers north from Delhi, as one goes along the river Yamuna, one comes upon the sand banks left behind by the shrinking river. That is a source of livelihood for some. A group of youths, all between sixteen and eighteen years of age, go there at dawn. They live in shanties nearby – lacking in water and sanitation – together with other construction workers. They dig up the soft, white sandy riverbed and take it away. The white sandy soil on the riverbed is used in building construction. The whole operation is undertaken furtively because the police may catch them. If caught, they would have to pay a hefty bribe to the police because excavating the sand from the river bed is illegal. Someone with money pays for the purchase of a mule, which the boy then works to pay off. They work for two or three hours at dawn, working as fast as they can, so that they can load their mules before people – or police – appear in the morning. It is hard work. This earns them three or four hundred rupees. These are illiterate boys from poor families. But rich folk make them work for them, breaking the law and despoiling the environment. They are the ones who give them horses and mules for their work. Forced into premature adulthood, this work is now their play. After they are done, they do other work during the day, say, at a construction site, or hauling goods by mule. Their earnings go towards the sustenance of their families.
Photos and text by Jan Mohammad Shaikh