Panning for gold, Mumbai streetsweepers watch for all that glitters

In India's wealthiest city of Mumbai, streetsweepers can be found panning for gold amid the sewage pipes in front of goldsmiths' houses. It's one of many informal recycling enterprises in India.

Pal PILLAI/AFP/Newscom/File
Indian goldsmiths work on pieces of gold jewelery in Mumbai. The city's streetsweepers are often found panning for gold amid the sewage pipes in front of goldsmiths' houses.

Walk beyond Mumbai’s Zaveri bazaar, the gold hub of India’s wealthiest city (formerly known as Bombay), and you might catch street sweepers panning for gold amid the sewage pipes in front of goldsmiths’ homes.

Samir Sheikh is a young sweeper in the market who hunts down roughly 2 grams of gold every week – about .07 ounces, worth about $74. He explains that “when the goldsmiths shower, the gold dust on their hands and body comes off and flows out of the drain. We then collect the mud in the gutter and look for the gold.”

This improbable job is one of the many informal recycling enterprises in India. Finding the valuable gold dust is like searching for a needle in a haystack, so the sweepers do meticulous research. They find out where the goldsmiths live and then follow their trail.

Despite the sweepers’ entrepreneurial doggedness, their feat fails to inspire much awe in the market. One jeweler in the Zaveri bazaar, Rajesh Solanki, says bluntly that in India “when you throw away a bottle, someone will pick it up to collect it. This is what they do with the gold. [The sweepers] are part of the system – we don’t have the time or wherewithal to put the gold dust to use, but they do.”

India is averse to any form of waste and is culturally inclined toward recycling. These sentiments are born out of a preboom frugality that relied on hand-me-downs and an ability to fashion new things out of old.

As the country prospers, however, some wonder whether there will be any incentive to recycle at this micro level. But Bharati Chaturvedi of Chintan, an environmental nongovernmental organization, suggests the opposite may be true: “As people consume more,” she says, “there will be more waste and more opportunities.”

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