The Human Cost of Gold | National Geographic Magazine: Indians Pan for Gold in Streets Full of Garbage | Chennai, India

Indians Pan for Gold in Streets Full of Garbage | Chennai, India

In Chennai, India, Dilli Bai (at right) joins other sweepers who pan for flecks from neighborhood jewelry workshops, prospecting at dawn, before official trash collectors arrive. Bai collects about a gram a week from the dust of the city streets. Wherever there is gold, people will seek it.

The owner of Nathella Jewelry told us about these women near his wholesale outlet who swept the dust on the streets outside where the gold smiths work in order to find gold.  I couldn’t really believe I was photographing women panning for gold in streets full of garbage. I guess why this happens is that India treats gold as a commodity and sells it for the value of the gold plus “making charges.”  Because the artisans work for so little, they can keep the making charges around 15 percent.  People are paid very little and do the work in their homes in these ghetto areas.  The women sweep the streets in the morning, bent over in a way that you know they’ve spent a good deal of their lives in this position. Then they pan for the gold, hoping to get about a gram a week.  It was amazing to see the glitter in their little pans, such a small amount that it was too difficult to photograph. They have to do it early because the government street sweepers get there around 9am.

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