Seeking to replicate Midas

THERE IS scum. There is froth and there are dangerous diseases lurking in the dirty drain water, but that doesn't deter these people from wading in it day in and day out on the lookout for a few grams of the precious metal. Seeking to replicate the myth surrounding the legendary King Midas, the poverty stricken people of Gandhi Nagar, Kempatti Colony, Keerakarai and Sukrawarpet work their hands in the stinking Ukkadam drains to recover the odd gold bits that flow in from the Town Hall and Gandhi Park gold markets.

It is a sad sight watching men, women and young children searching in these drains. But, they seem to have accepted their lot. "We don't really mind sifting through the sludge. It may look ludicrous from outside, but the quality of the find inside is what counts. There is pleasure and prize for our strain,'' say the women folk of Gandhi Nagar.

They may be right in every sense. However, what they fail to understand is that they expose themselves to the worst ailments. Are they not worried? Pat comes the reply. "God is there to take care of us. We have been doing this for years and have rarely fallen sick. Even if we do, it gets cured by itself."

When asked about possible health hazards in such work, City Health Officer Amudha said: "It is quite dangerous. I have not visited these areas, but one thing is sure. These people may fall prey to suffocation as they inhale the noxious gases in the drains. Also, working for days on end in the drains might result in their contracting serious skin diseases. However, we have not received complaints of any outbreak in these areas."

There are about 50 families in Gandhi Nagar, which eke out a livelihood through this vocation. Their day starts at 4 a.m. and winds up late after sunset. They begin the morning collecting bucketfuls of drain water and storing them in small pits measuring four by four feet.

Each family owns a pit and close to three members work hand in hand to make the day easier. Later, they drain the water and gather the sand, which contains precious gold granules and pieces. Fifteen hours of work fetches them less than a bagful of sand. Despite the meagre returns they keep treading patiently with a large smile on their faces.

For how many days do they slog like this to make some money? "For over 20 days," says Sasikala. The work does not end with collecting bags of sand. They have to sift through the silt to collect any gold dust and later melt and mould it. The reward for their nearly month-long toil is six grams of the shining metal. Good money and worth a bargain.

Sasikala affirms that it is good enough to make both ends meet. "We don't get paid as per the prevailing gold rates in the market, but it is okay with us.''

And, where do they sell their find? To small-time pawnbrokers in Telugu Brahmin Street, Karuppa Gounder Street and adjoining streets in Town Hall. However, the pawnbrokers in these areas deny buying gold from these people. But, the people in the area insist otherwise. They say the brokers will not divulge the truth as they run the risk of the wholesaler or buyer knowing where the metal came from.

Coimbatore is one among the best jewellery manufacturing centres in India and that is one reason why the poor flock here. Some opine that the fluctuations in gold prices and the diminishing number of pawnbrokers have hit these people hard. However, jewellers in Raja Street maintain that these people take home hefty sums.

"They are able to salvage a minimum of three grams a day and that too without any investment. If they are lucky enough, they even land a full piece of jewellery which has been washed down the drain of some household. Even goldsmiths do not make such money."

Women and children hunting for gold granules at Gandhi Nagar.

Women and children hunting for gold granules at Gandhi Nagar.  

What is really interesting is that the people involved in this business are not from Coimbatore. They come from villages in Namakkal, a good centre for poultry and tanker business. Why did they choose the Textile City to earn a living? "We don't deny that we come from a city which is a good business centre. But, there is room only for a few to survive. Many people like us left the town seeking greener pastures. Some went to Kerala to do the same job. We came here and tried our luck in all fields to earn three meals a day. Only when nothing worked out did we decide to step into the drains.

The hot summer is also a big threat to their business. "The drainage flow has been restricted and we find it hard to collect enough drain water to sift for gold. Only the rains<145,4>(Continued on Page 2)

can come to our rescue and make life brighter for us,"

observes sexagenarian Pitchaimuthu, who has been in this for over a decade.

There are families engaged in this work for two decades or more. "The larger the family, the better the income, for they own extra pits," he observes. Not many of his ilk agree. However, locals denounce claims that these people live in poverty. They say that these `gold-craving' people are quite rich and that each one of them owns a house in Namakkal. Tell this to Pitchaimuthu and he retaliates: "If those were the cases, why should we have to come all the way to Coimbatore. We would have happily stayed back in our village with just pots of porridge to fill our tummy."

Pitchaimuthu states that it is to provide better education and a bright future for their children that they have travelled this far. "Our fathers left no money or piece of land for us. I am afraid our children will face a similar situation. At the moment, with the kind of money we earn, it looks quite impossible for us to leave something for our children.

It is our destiny to die here. We would be glad if the Government gives us each a piece of land measuring two cents. Otherwise our lives will be washed away in these drains."

Sadly, though the parents want to educate their children, the kids seem to realise the poverty they are growing up in and have opted to follow their elders' footsteps and wet their hands in the drains.

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