Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Life Of An Indian Dust Sweeper

Gold panning and placer mining is hard work, back-bending and sometimes backbreaking. The returns are often low, even if serious equipment is used. Although panning in the wild may seem like a frustrating way to acquire the metal, it's leaps and bounds above what certain Indian untouchables do to eke out a living: sweeping dust off the streets by the exits from jewelry and gold fabrication centres in order to get a little gold to sell.
Like her mother and grandmother before her, Ganga Gohel, 80, crouches in a narrow alley, carefully working an 8-inch brush over the cracked concrete with gnarled hands, her back permanently bent after a lifetime on the job....

Motivating her are the estimated 5,000 gold and silver shops in this western city. As the 40,000 workers from the shops come and go, flecks of gold fall from their hair and clothes, to be scooped up by Gohel and other dhul dhoyas [untouchables]. Some enterprising collectors even follow workers home, raiding their sewer pipes for the muck from their showers.

Since the age of 15, Gohel has been working this alley from late morning until dark, with Sundays off, a schedule driven by shop hours and the rhythm of the settling dust.

It's hard, but at least she didn't have to pick up her mother's sideline: removing the burning coals and ashes from silver kilns, which she would crush and run through a sieve to capture the precious fragments. Now Gohel's daughter Kasmeera, 35, is joining the family business, helping her mother collect waste on the same street.

Once she and her mother separate the gold-specked dirt from the betel nut wrappers, cow manure, stained newspapers and other trash, it's sold for about $8 per bag.
It's a hard life, especially since the jewllers and fabricators themselves are thorough in reclaiming any gold shavings they drop on the floor. The particles Gohel gets are often microscopic in size. The refiner who buys the bags puts the contents in a vat heated by coal fires, adds nitric acid and mercury, and teases out the gold. During busy seasons, more gold dust gets outside of the jewelry makers and the price per bag goes up.

Like many cases of Third World artisanal gold gathering, this case shows what people will do when poverty is much higher than the level we're used to. Back in older days, a story like this would end with a homily about how fortunate we are to live in places where we don't have to do such work.

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