February 5, 2018 / 7:55 AM / 4 months ago

Gold from the gutters: The life of India’s ‘Ghamelawallahs’

REUTERS - Gold is everywhere in Zaveri Bazaar, one of India’s biggest gold markets. It sparkles in ornaments like bangles, necklaces and earrings displayed in 7,000 tiny shops crammed into narrow alleys. Or slabs of the shiny metal lie in goldsmiths’ factories, ready to be cut.

Arif collects dust in Zaveri Bazaar, Mumbai. Photo by Priyanka Shankar

Located behind the massive Chhatrapati Shivaji train station, in India’s financial capital Mumbai, specks of gold also glitter amidst the dust and grime of Zaveri Bazaar’s streets and drains.

One early Monday morning around 5 a.m., when the bazaar was nearly deserted, stores closed, and the temples not yet open for morning rituals, a group of men appeared to be cleaning the open drains of the streets. They carried brushes, blue polythene bags and aluminum pans.

One was Arif. Nineteen years old, wearing a blue checked shirt and jeans, he collected a heap of dust from the drain and put it into a pan. He scoured for every speck of dust he could find, then disappeared into a dark alley.

Arif is a ‘Ghamelawallah’, the name given to a man who searches for gold amidst the garbage and grime of Zaveri Bazaar’s streets. Their name comes from the Hindi word “Ghamela”, which is the pan in which they collect the gold-flecked dirt.

“Every boy in the family usually becomes a ghamelawallah. This is my family tradition,” said Arif. “Depending on the amount of gold I find, I can earn between a few thousands to a lakh (rupees) in a day.” That comes to as much as $1,500 a day.

Zaveri Bazaar is home to many factories and workshops where gold is cut and carved. Some gold particles are carelessly thrown into the streets or get washed away into the drains when the craftsmen wash their hands.

“They come here every morning to sweep every corner of the street, and lift lids off gutters around gold shops to collect dust and sludge”, said Ahmed, who works nearby at a tea shop.

Arif works for about five hours every day, collecting dust and sludge from every corner of the streets. Once his pan is full, he retires to his “work station” in a secluded corner off the street.

He washes the muck with water; if there is gold, it sinks to the bottom of the pan. Arif smiles as he watches some shiny yellow particles sink. “I will now add mercury to the pan so that the gold sticks to the mercury,” he said. He cooks the mixture over a furnace and adds nitric acid, so that the mercury vapourizes and only gold is left behind.

“I have found about five grams of gold today!” Arif exclaimed as pungent smoke swirled from the furnace in front of him where they beat the gold into slabs. “Based on its purity and the price of gold today, I should go back home with some good money.”

He went to the shop of Ram Kulkarni, a goldsmith who buys old gold. He accepts gold from the ghamelawallahs and sells it to the jewellers. Seated on an elevated stool before an antique wooden table, Kulkarni was testing the purity of a slab of gold. People surrounded him, waiting to get their gold ornaments tested. Arif greeted him with a grin and handed over his slab of gold to be tested.

“We share a good relationship. I measure the quantity and purity of the gold they give me, and we accordingly fix the price,” said Kulkarni. “Many of the bigger shops consider such gold as ‘gutter gold’ but any gold found is still a treasure.”

Ghamelawallahs usually work alone, but finding gold isn’t always easy. Sanjay, another ghamelawallah, says the job relies on luck. “There are days when all I find is plain dust and nothing else,” said Sanjay, 40. “During the rainy season it is very difficult for us to find any gold since the muck gets washed away.”

Arif poses for a photograph in Zaveri Bazaar, Mumbai. Photo by Priyanka Shankar

Some ghamelawallahs also take up other jobs. Arif works in a shop selling clothes for young children. Others work as gardeners or cooks. For some like Shakeel, taking up any profession which does not involve gold is not an option.

Shakeel, 24, moved to Mumbai from Agra in northern India to find a job in the gold industry. Having studied until only the eighth grade, it was hard for him to find a job in a gold shop or work as a goldsmith. But his obsession with the metal made him resort to working as a ghamelawallah.

“Gold is money to me. Dealing with the shiny metal makes me feel rich and happy, even though I am now finding it from drains,” he said.

Smiling faces are seen in almost every gold shop on the street as shoppers choose their favourite gold ornaments.

“Indians have an emotional bond towards gold”, said Ram Sethi, who works as a jeweller in the Bazaar. “The demand for the metal is always growing and people consider it a safe investment.” Still, he said, ghamelawallah gold is impure.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation

(BMC) street sweepers don’t like the ghamelawallahs. The government employs them to clean the streets and they resent the ghamelawallahs getting in their way.

“They clean only the dust. If they find any other garbage in the form of food waste or pieces of paper and plastic, they throw it back on the streets”, said one sweeper.

The police take a more practical view.

“They are scared of us and hide as soon as they see us approaching the streets for our daily patrol”, said a policeman from the T- Marg police station within the bazaar. “Their work is not legal, but it at least keeps the streets clean so we have not stopped them.”

“Besides,” he chuckled. “How much gold can they actually find?”

Over the past few years, many goldsmiths have become aware of the value of the dust they waste, and have begun collecting it themselves and selling it.

Slideshow (6 Images)

Suresh Chaudhary prefers cleaning the area around his store himself. “I have begun earning a lot by selling the gold dust which scatters around my store when I work,” he said. “I am extra careful in making sure that any gold wasted is collected in polythene bags and sold again.”

But Shakeel thinks there will always be enough gold for him to collect. “Working as a ghamelawallah is the only job I know. The gold from this bazaar’s drains will always fund my pocket.”

Editing by Robert MacMillan; This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission

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