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Making about a hundred trips a day, one every five minutes, two boats ferry people and, very often, their motorcycles across the Gorai creek from Borivali jetty to Gorai jetty from 6 am to 11 pm. Ensuring safe passage of the heavily loaded ferries on each one of these trips is a crew of four “khalashi”, or assistants of the “saarang” or the ‘ferry master’. All employees of the Gorai Machhimar Society, they work eight to nine hours’ shifts daily.
Their job consists of maintaining just about every part of the ferry, except the engine. They don many hats — docking the ferry at the jetty, helping people get their vehicles on and off it, cleaning the ferry, and even steering it in the absence of the master. If a passenger happens to fall into the creek, the crew members double up as lifeguards.
Sachin Gadam, one such crew member, has been doing this job for 13 years now. His father did the same before him, and Sachin took over after his death. Like all others, he learnt the ropes on the job, having received no formal training.
One of the most difficult tasks that the job entails is cleaning the ferry’s propeller, which is at the very bottom of the vessel. Thus, three to four times a day, one of the crew members has to lower himself into the water below the ferry, armed with a knife, and pull out any garbage obstructing the movement of the propeller. The knife is put to use if the garbage is not removable by hand. All this has to be done before the oxygen in their lungs falls short.
“We usually take two minutes to complete the process, since that is how long we can hold our breath for,” says Sachin.
Ashok Chorghe, a member of Sachin’s crew, said: “The risks involved are minor but we have to go right under the ferry to clean the propellers. We have to time it well so that we can come back up, take a breath and get back under the water again.”
Cuts and scrapes are common as they work without any protective gear. In their striped navy-blue-and-white shirts and blue trousers, the men are ready to take on any hurdle that gets in the way of a smooth sail from one jetty to another.
According to the ferry master, the pay isn’t nearly enough to cover the risk these men take. According to an official from the Gorai Machhimar Society, while old-timer khalashis get paid Rs 13,000 a month, the newer recruits get Rs 12,500.
“We are all residents of Gorai. Though the job is tough, it makes more sense to work right here instead of travelling for hours every day,” Choghe said.
Sachin said: “It is usually things like rope and plastic that are stuck in the propeller. The nirmalaya (flowers and garlands offered to idols) thrown in the creek in plastic bags pose a big problem. Though this practice has been banned, people still continue to do it once the BMC officials leave in the evening.”
He says he has observed that there has been a decrease in the amount of garbage stuck in the propeller in the last few years. “The BMC has imposed a fine on littering here. The creek has also been regularly dredged in the past couple of years, which makes the maintenance of ferries easier and their passage smoother,” says Sachin.
“We just wish people would understand and stop littering,” says another crew member, pointing to a passenger who discards a plastic packet by the edge of the ferry as she gets up to leave.