Meet the men who hunt for gold in the drains of Mumbai

Every morning, around 6 am, 23-year-old Akram Khan makes his way to Zaveri Bazaar. Armed with a brush, he starts sweeping the streets with all his might. He enters drains and scoops out the black, slimy sludge. He scours for every speck of dust and mud he can find. But Akram is not a municipal sweeper with an Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) -- he is a ghamelawala.

People come from as far as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to buy bulk quantities of this dust and take it back home to extract gold. Pics/ Saurabh Datar

This unique tribe of men is named after the Hindi word for the pan in which they collect the dirt — ghamela. “They come here every morning, every day to collect the dust, grime, sewage water — whatever they can find from near our shops and factories,” explains Gulraj Pahuja, a 60-year-old veteran who owns a jewellery manufacturing business in┬áZaveri Bazaar.

The market has several workshops and mini factories where craftsmen cut and carve away at gold and silver pieces to make rings, pendants, chains and other ornaments. Inadvertently, some gold particles get stuck to their hands, to the soles of their shoes, or even in their hair. When these workers walk out of the unit or wash their hands, the stray gold particles make their way out of the protected walls of the workshop, onto the streets. The ghamelawalas lay claim to this hidden treasure. At India’s largest bullion market, there’s gold everywhere. Literally.

From garbage to gold
Akram lets me in on his daily routine. Every day, he collects several kilos of mud and sludge from the drains and gutters outside workshops. He knows where they are. This takes him about two to three hours, after which he heads over to his ‘workstation’ — a small platform on which rests a miniature furnace (bhatti as he calls it), and a small pool of water beside it, to clean the collected sludge.

The sludge is washed and cleaned with water to remove mud and granules

“You see what I’m doing? I’ve submerged the pan completely in water. All the granules, clay and dirt will float out. But gold is heavy. It will sink to the bottom,” he explains. His friend, Shahid, who is also panning for gold nearby, watches me with amusement. Akram tilts the pan and the stones and dirt fall out of it, as they are lightweight. Gold is always last in the race to leave the pan.

Sifting his fingers through the mud, Shahid has hit upon something. He shows me a speck, a dull yellow sunshine in the pitch dark night of the dirt. He adds mercury to the mixture. “Sona paare pe chipakta hai. Bahut useful hai (gold sticks to mercury, it is very useful).” He then runs a small magnet over the residue to filter out the ferrous particles and magnetic dust. All that remains in the pan is gold-laden mercury.

“Ab isko acid mein pakaayenge (now we will cook it in acid),” smiles Shahid. The acid reacts with mercury to form salts. Gold, which is extremely inert, is left behind. After ‘cooking’ the gold for about 10 minutes over the furnace, white smoke billows from the vessel. This means the job is done. The liquid salts are poured out into another vessel. A small blob left behind in the vessel is the gold. After the metal cools down, it is cleaned with soda to make it shine.

After adding mercury, it is boiled in acid (aqua regia or nitric acid)

“Bhai, chamak nahi toh kuch nahi. Yeh dekh sona (Brother, if it doesn’t shine, then it’s not gold. See, this is true gold),” he holds out his palm to show me the day’s discovery. This would be about 300-400 milligrams, the average amount one finds every day. After accumulating one to two grams over a couple of days, the metal is sold off to small-time goldsmiths. On an average, one sweeper can get up to two grams in a week. The experts manage to find more.

There is an entire lane in Zaveri Bazaar replete with such goldsmiths, who occupy a small counter just outside bigger shops, both jewellery and otherwise.

Think of a paan shop outside a restaurant. It is almost the same arrangement.

Sitting with his weighing machine at one such shop is 23-year-old Prakash Patil. He buys about eight grams of gold every day from ghamelawalas and sells it off to other jewellers.

“The rates vary, depending on the purity of the gold. It is obviously less than the market price,” explains Patil, who himself moved to the city from Kolhapur in search of a job. But his uncle got him into this business instead.

Generations lured by the shine
“My father used to do this. I learnt it from him and now I am doing the same thing,” Shahid recalls. While Shahid and Akram are from Mumbai, there are some who moved to the city much later.

One such man is Deepak Singh, who came to Mumbai when he was 15. “Gold has always fascinated me. My mother never had gold jewellery. We could never afford it. Unki tadap dekh ke mujhe sone ka pagalpan chadh gaya (Seeing their craving for gold, I became crazy for the metal). Today, I deal in gold every day. Mujhe achha lagta hai (I feel good),” he says.

The leftover particle is cooled in water and cleaned with soda

An old lady in her early 50s joins the conversation. Everyone calls her sethani, because she owns the furnace and the chemicals. “They pay me Rs 30 per day to use the equipment. Mere ladke hain yeh (these are my boys),” she refers to them affectionately. “I’ve been doing this for over 40 years. But nowadays, it is getting tougher to find gold. Sone ka bhaav itna zyaada hai ki kachre mein se bhi milna mushkil ho gaya hai (gold rates are so high that it is difficult to find them in waste),” laments the woman, who sleeps on a cot under the stars in the same lane.

Others nod along, adding, “It’s a dirty job, bhai. Everyone looks down upon us. We have to scrape the bottom of gutters and nullahs to find this gold.” But Akram dismisses him, “Aisa nahi hai (that’s not the case). I am my own master here. I come and go as I please. Koi boss woss ka jhamela nahi (I’m not answerable to any tyrant bosses). This is what I do; I can’t think of doing anything else now.”

Surprisingly, Akram has studied till Std VII, but strayed away from academics due to lack of guidance. But it’s okay, he says. He has made his peace with it. Shahid too chimes in, “We are bindaas (cool). We aren’t afraid of anyone. Sab khule mein karte hain (we do everything openly).” There are thousands of such scavengers all over the market. Everyone is bound together by a common cause — a daily gold rush.

The jewellers claim that the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) sweepers only caress the ground with their brooms, cleaning the streets superficially. The ghamelawalas do the rest of the job. They share a strange symbiotic relationship with the gold traders. They keep the streets and drains clean, in exchange for a few thousand rupees worth of gold, which would have otherwise flown away into the Arabian Sea anyway.

Strangely, there are no marked territories or areas. Everyone is welcome, or at least, there have been no major disputes or fights. There are no rules. If you manage to find gold, it’s yours. Otherwise, you’re stuck with a pan full of sludge.

“It’s all a game of luck. We take what God gives us. Mila toh allah ki meherbaani, warna allah ke bharose (We leave everything upto the Almighty),” Shahid says.

The El Dorado moment: Gold is segregated

I ask them about the recent gold hunt in Unnao. Most have heard of it and are curious whether the gold was found. I tell them it wasn’t. “I had thought of going there, but it was just a publicity stunt. Mumbai sone ki nagri hai (Mumbai is the city of gold). Jab yehin par sona hai toh udhar tak kyun jana? (When there is gold here, why go there?) But there is also gold near Indore,” declares Akram, who claims to have found more gold than the ‘seer’ who dreamt of the treasure under Unnao, ever did in his life.

The dress and wash code
With gold hovering around the R 30 K mark, everyone holds on to as much of the metal as they can. A jeweller says on condition of anonymity, “Gold will always sell in this country. We Indians love gold. Jahaan sona hai, wahaan paisa hai (Where there is gold, there is money).”

Pahuja, who himself has been in the gold business for 40 years, enlightens me on how he manages to retain as much of the gold as possible with himself. “We don’t let anyone sweep our corridors and stairs. We clean it ourselves and store the dirt.”

Pahuja tells me that people from as far as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Gujarat come to buy this dirt in bulk. “They are our regular buyers; we accumulate large amounts and sell it to them by the kilo,” he elaborates. The rates of the dust vary — the seller estimates the amount of gold a certain sample may contain and quotes a price. Bargaining ensues, as always, and an informal deal is struck. These wholesalers buy dirt bags worth thousands and lakhs of rupees and take it back to their native states, where they extract gold from them.

In his own workshop, Pahuja’s workers are given separate uniforms. They have to wear them on the premises and take it off when they leave for home. No outsiders are allowed. All precautions are taken to ensure the gold stays with the owners.

“When employees wash their hands, we collect the water through suction pumps and store it in tanks — there’s gold in the water too. After a bulk quantity of the water accumulates, we extract gold from it,” says Pahuja, whose designs make their way to the shelves of big jewellers such as Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri.

As I walk out of Pahuja’s office, I check the soles of my shoes. Sadly, I am not as lucky. Maybe next time.

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