How back-breaking work and smart trading turn dust into gold

Andrew Buncombe reveals the work of an enterprising community of dust-washers who survive from the leftovers of the thousands of jewellers in Ahmedabad

Twice a day, every day, Gauri Parmar picks up her broom and goes out to sweep for gold. She cannot actually see the tiny particles of gold dust settled in the gutters and streets around Ahmedabad’s goldsmiths’ district, but she knows they are there.

She sweeps first thing in morning, and then again at 10pm when the crowds have cleared. By collecting the dust, treating it with acid and selling the gold back to the jewellers, she has been able to scrape enough money to raise her two children alone.

“I have been doing this for 25 years,” Mrs Parmar, 49, said proudly, sitting on a bed in her pink-painted home. “My son just completed his chartered accountancy examinations.”

She is part of an enterprising community of dhul dhoyas, or dust-washers, who survive from the leftovers of the thousands of jewellers in Gujarat’s largest city. The work is dirty and sometimes perilous, and sweepers often face discrimination over their low caste, but it provides a livelihood to an unknown number of families.

For centuries, Indians have been beguiled by gold, hoarding it as insurance against difficult times. Today, the country is the world’s largest importer of the metal. Earlier this year, the federal government raised import duty to curb purchases because they were adding to a widening trade deficit.

 Industry estimates suggest there may be up to 500,000 people employed in the goldsmiths’ trade in Gujarat. Many are migrant workers originally from poor districts in West Bengal. Their light-fingered dexterity and, more importantly, their willingness to work long hours for low pay, supposedly makes them more desirable than local workers.

Sapan Dey, 38, employs 10 young Bengalis in a small, second-floor workshop in the Ratanpole area of Ahmedabad.

A large leather apron surrounds the table on which the men work to collect larger scraps of gold which Mr Dey recycles by melting them in a furnace. But once a month, a man called Syed Aslam comes and sweeps and swabs the rest of the workshop and takes away the straw mats. Mr Aslam pays Mr Dey for the privilege of doing so. “We take the mats and burn them and collect any gold or copper or silver,” said Mr Aslam, who has contracts with goldsmiths’ shops across India.

He said the price he pays to Mr Dey depends on the amount of work he perceives the shop is doing, whether it is festival time, when more jewellery was being made, or the wholesale price of gold. But sometimes his estimates are off: “Sometimes we get it wrong.”

A few streets away in the Sahjanand market, a dark, grimy Dickensian block that is home to an alleged 6,000 workers, Jitu Patni also pays for the right to sweep for gold. He and members of his extended family hold the contract for the second, third and fourth floors of the complex. Another family cleans the first floor. “We have to pay money to the factory because we are sure there will be gold in the rubbish,” he explained.

 

Sweeper Jitu Patni Sweeper Jitu Patni (Andrew Buncombe) In a sweltering warehouse on the roof, Mr Patni, his two sisters and his in-laws revealed how they separated the various types of rubbish and then gathered the dust in tubs. They also collected the water they used to wash the factory’s corridors, allowing it to settle overnight and then further straining it through pieces of cloth to retain the sediment. They did not separate the gold themselves but sold on the sediment to someone else who performed the process.

For all the basic nature of the job, Mr Patni had a sophisticated knowledge of the shifting price of gold, how much he should pay for his contract and, how much he should expect to be paid by the man who collected the sediment.

“During the monsoon season the rates go down because the amount of gold you can recover is less,” he said. “But in December, January and February the rates go up because that is the wedding season and the sales of gold [and the amount of jewellery being made in the factory] go up.”

Mr Patni’s sister, Gawri, wearing a pair of gold earrings, said it was only on very rare occasions that they spotted gold in the dirt. Yet they all knew it was there. “Some gold has to be worn by everyone,” she said. “Every woman loves gold. Not just Indian women.”

While those who work inside the factory are obliged to pay a fee to the owners, those such as Mr Parmar, who sweep in the clogged streets and alleyways outside, can work for free.

Daya Patni, who shares the same name as Jitu Patni, is 69 and has been sweeping the streets near the Manek roundabout for years. He sells dust he collects to other people or else carries it home in sacks and uses water to create sediment that he can later sieve.

 

Daya Patni and his sieve Daya Patni and his sieve (Andrew Buncombe) Mr Patni said he left for work at 5.30am but that there were about 30 or 40 other sweepers who competed for the best spots. Among them is an 80-year-old woman, Ganga Gohel, who has become something of a celebrity in the area. “There is an unwritten rule that whoever gets there first gets to sweep that spot,” he said. “If I cannot get there on time, and find that somebody else is already there, then I have to go to a different spot.” Mr Patni, who has a son and a daughter, said he rarely spotted pieces of gold while he works. But one day, 15 years ago, he found a piece of gold on the pavement that he sold for 1,200 rupees (about £13). He used the money to purchase a rickshaw permit.

Mrs Parmar, who has been widowed for more than two decades and who lives a short walk away from Mr Patni’s small home, is among those sweepers who actually process the dust themselves. The method is complicated and dangerous and involves mixing the collected sediment with acid, adding mercury, mixing in baking soda and then finally placing it inside a furnace.

The gold she produces and sells back to the goldsmiths’ market is not 100 per cent pure, but she estimates she is still able to average between 10,000 and 15,000 rupees a month. Sometimes she makes as much as 20,000 rupees (£212). That she was able to send her son, Rohit, to college, and to help her daughter, Manisa, establish her own business, is a source of intense pride. “My husband died 22 years ago. He also used to do this job,” said Mrs Parmar. “I needed to keep working to educate my son.”

Indian gold: In numbers

$2.9bn Estimated value of gold imports in July, up from $2.45bn in June. Demand is rising despite government attempts to curb purchases, which have helped to push the current account deficit to a record high

9% July’s gold price rise, ahead of this month’s festival season

20m The number of people employed in the gold trade across India

20% India’s proportion of the world’s gold consumption in 2012, according to the World Gold Council

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Voices
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum