Scavengers in search of gold to beat poverty


When the sun sets and shops close, Pakistan’s gold scavengers come to life, sifting through dirt and sewers for precious yellow scraps they can turn to profit.
It is a painstaking, filthy job reserved for those dreaming of a rags-to-riches fortune in one of the poorest countries in Asia, better known for al Qaeda and bombs than social mobility.
Yet after nine years on the job and standing up to his waist in muddy water, 19-year-old Murad Ali keeps the dream alive. “Hey, I got it,” he shouts, yanking out a hand clutching a small gold ring. Droplets of grime splash his face and clothes, but nothing can wipe the grin from his mouth or the glint of happiness in his eyes.
“This is a gold ring. It’ll fetch 2,500 rupees,” he says, springing out of the filth to run it under clean tap water.
But pieces of jewellery dropped by careless owners are hard to come by. The usual job is going through the dirt and mud he stores in polythene bags searching, literally, for gold dust.
For the barely literate in Pakistan, the job brings in enough money to feed families and rent homes that would be hard to match in other menial jobs.
Gold prices reached a record high of more than $1,600 an ounce in London this week, boosting incomes for the scavengers. “I earn six to seven thousand rupees in a week,” Ali says. “My father is a hashish addict. I’m taking care of my family.” Ali grew up in the Shah Dhand suburb of Peshawar. He left school at nine and started working a year later. He got married at 17 and is now the father of a son, living in a rented home that costs 3,000 rupees a month. “This job depends on your luck and fortune. Sometimes I earn more. I once got a ring worth 10,000 rupees,” he said. The only precautions he takes are a good bath and some scent in a bid to get rid of the stench of nights spent up to his waist in filth.
“A good soap, a shampoo and a good perfume are now a compulsory part of my life,” he joked. There is no specific data about the number of workers, but local jewellers estimate that hundreds dig for gold in the northwest, where troops are fighting home-grown Taliban insurgents and bombings are routine.
Jewellery, particularly gold, is a symbol of pride, wealth and superiority in Pakistan. Therefore, it is big business.
Sifting for gold on the streets and in drains begins at dusk and can last until dawn. The dust and filth contain minute particles of gold discarded from goldsmiths who grind down the metal to make jewellery.
The job begins with cleaning the streets with brushes. Others scoop out filth from the drains. Some work alone, more in groups. Pieces of gold, like Ali’s ring, detected by the naked eye, are collected and washed clean but the smaller particles can only be separated from sand and dust by applying a special acid, says jeweller Arifullah Khan.
The acid dissolves everything, including other metals and iron, leaving only shimmers of gold behind.
Khan, who has owned a shop in the market for 45 years, said hundreds of people scavenged for gold in Peshawar while bomb attacks and power cuts squeezed mainstream trade.
In the Andershehr jewellery market, the market association says a contractor pays 20,000 rupees for the exclusive rights to sweep the area. Traders, in turn, have spent the money on hiring security guards. The peak activity of washing, cleaning and sweeping the market and draining system begins on Sunday, the day of rest. “We collect everything: the dust, dirt, stones, wastage, papers and bag it up. We even wash the whole market on Sunday,” Salamat Masih, 53, a Christian worker and father of five told AFP.
Fazal Rooman, 14, who was searching for gold in the nearby gutter said he earns 3-4,000 rupees ($46) a week.
“I started this job when I was seven years old. I’m sure one day I’ll find my luck,” he said.