x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Panning in squalor for flecks of gold

As food prices rise, more people are being forced to search in a bazaar's open sewers to retrieve tiny quantities of the precious metal.

Mohammed Musharraf at work in the Tanti bazaar
Mohammed Musharraf at work in the Tanti bazaar

DHAKA // Shortly after dawn in Dhaka's historic gold bazaar, Mohammed Musharraf is squatting by an open drain using his bare hands to sift though a pan of detritus and dirty water. The smell is appalling - like most of the open sewers in Bangladesh's overcrowded and polluted capital. The drain contains untreated human waste, kitchen scraps, industrial effluent and rubbish. But unlike the other sewers in the city, this one runs through Tanti bazaar, a one-square-kilometre pocket of old Dhaka, which is home to more than 350 jewellery stores and workshops, and increasingly, people such as Mr Musharraf are coming here to pan for gold. "There are so many shops and factories here a lot of gold makes it to the drains," said Mr Musharraf, who comes from north Bangladesh. For years, this dirty work was the preserve of drug addicts desperate to earn enough money for their next fix, but soaring inflation and high unemployment has meant more people are willing to try their luck in Tanti Bazaar's effluent. "If I could do any other job, I would, but unemployment is so high," said Mohammad Harun, 39. "My brothers are fish sellers but they barely earn enough to feed their families." In the past year, Bangladeshis have seen the price of basic foodstuffs, such as rice, increase by as much as 70 per cent. The price of pulses, wheat, flour and onions has also risen by as much as 60 per cent, according to government statistics. With close to half of Bangladesh's 158 million people surviving on less than US$1 (Dh3.67) a day, many families are now spending more than 50 per cent of their income on food. Mr Musharraf and Mr Harun estimate the number of men prospecting in Tanti bazaar's drains has risen from 60 to 90 since January. "I used to mind the smell when I started but I have got used to it now," Mr Musharraf said. The methods they use are the same as those used by treasure-seekers during the Californian gold rush of the 1850s. Based on the principle that gold is heavier than gravel or dirt, they scoop the sediment from the bottom of the drains and swirl it around in an old wok so that the lighter particles float to the top and the precious metal sinks to the bottom. In addition, they use the drain water to wash the mulchy rubbish that forms in small heaps outside the shops, in the hope it too may contain pieces of jewellery. Mostly their efforts yield flecks of gold leaf and tiny links from necklaces or earrings, but occasionally they find a gold stud or small gems. Sometimes they use nitric acid to help expose the pieces of the precious metal in the sludge, a practice that has left the men's fingers stained orangey brown. Mr Musharraf and Mr Harun, who work together in a team with two other friends, estimate they find about 4,000 taka (Dh215) worth of gold every day. Some of the material they find is lost during the process of turning the gold into jewellery, which is carried out in dark workshops and seems to have changed little in centuries. Other bits fall on the shop floors when items are removed from the showcases and are then swept out into the gutters. "The amounts are tiny," said Nural Islam, the owner of New Leva Jewellers. But with the price of gold hitting a record high of US$1,000 an ounce this year, these specks provide Mr Musharraf and his team with a modest living. "This way I can afford to feed my family," said Mr Musharraf, who is 27 and has two children. At the end of the working day, Mr Musharraf and his friends each take home about 250 taka. They have to pay the rest of their earnings to the shopkeepers for the right to sift through their waste, and to a dealer who collects the gold and sells it back to the workshops. "We have to pay to pick through this squalor," Mr Harun said. These days, fewer customers are coming to the bazaar, frightened away by the high price of gold. And with less jewellery being made, less gold is being swept into the drains. "The market is empty. Sales are very bad," Mr Islam said. In a workshop over the road, men and boys sit cross-legged at low wooden workbenches squinting as they bend the gold into intricate designs. Another group soften gold over a charcoal fire, one boy acts as a human bellows, lying on the floor and blowing on the embers. But with weak demand for their products, many of these workshops have been forced to lay off staff in the past year. For the time being, however, the panners are still scraping a living. hgardner@thenational.ae