Magazine article Geographical

Gutter Gold

Magazine article Geographical

Gutter Gold

Article excerpt

India's Dalits are traditionally the poorest of the poor, fit only for jobs deemed too unclean and unsanitary for those of higher castes. But for a few Dalit women in the city of Bikaner, Rajasthan, working in the sewers is proving a profitable business.

In the warren of alleys that make up the Indian city of Bikaner's old town, Manju squats alongside a narrow sewer canal, collecting her red and yellow sari around her. She spreads a few handfuls of black sludge onto a thin, concave iron pan and dips it down into the flowing liquid.

Working in circles, she swirls the pan until the lighter solids dissipate and the grit settles. She repeats the process--dipping and swirling, dipping and swirling--eyes fixed on the edge of her pan. As the liquid clears, the morning sunlight catches an unmistakable glint at the bottom of her pan: gold.

Manju is one of about 50 Dalit or 'untouchable', women in Bikaner who make their living panning for gold--in sewers. For just three or four hours' work each morning, collecting and panning human and household waste, the women earn about 400 rupees (4.87[pounds sterling])--good money by local standards at roughly four times the average wage of a male labourer.

The narrow open sewers where the women work lie downstream from a section of winding lanes where jewellers have been producing gold and silver ornaments for centuries. As the jewellers work, small flecks of gold and jewellery off-cuts are washed out with the grey waste and sewage, or swept out onto the street. Each woman collects from a different section of sewer, with some of the more profitable areas jealously guarded.

A QUICK BUCK

In the early morning, the women begin their day by gathering the sediment that has settled in sewers outside or downstream from the jewellery workshops. They use a square scoop, and often their hands, to gather the sediment off the bottom of the canals, piling the black muck--a mixture of mud, refuse and human waste--onto large, round pans and then carry the waste to a more open section where the sewer water runs more quickly. There they begin to pan.

'It's an easy job to earn money,' says Manju as she tucks her sari behind her ear to reveal a large gold stud earring and a smaller gold hoop. 'It's better than begging and better than carrying heavy things. It's dirty work, but otherwise, what do we eat?'

Manju, 40, has been panning in Bikaner's sewers since her husband died around ]2 years ago. Without even an elementary level of education, she says her options for work were limited to hard labour, housekeeping in a hotel or cleaning latrines. Panning for gold in the gutters has offered her a substantial income for only a few hours' work each day, leaving time to care for her family and home.

Manju differs from many of the women who work alongside her as she's from the first generation in her family to pan for gold in the sewers. 'At the beginning, it was hard,' she says. 'The other women didn't want me to work with them--they were so protective of their place [along the sewer].'

FAMILY BUSINESS

At another section of sewer, Sultana, 30, is about to pack up her pan and return home for lunch. Beside her, a pile of gritty waste dries in the midday sun. It has been a fruitful morning. …

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