All gold and hellish litter

Beyond all that glittering in the congested streets of Calcutta's sex districts, is defiled environment and morbid health conditions

By Sujit Chakraborty
Published: Wednesday 31 January 1996

IT is literally showering gold in Sonagachi and other red light districts of Calcutta, including Harkata Gali in Bowbazar area, Kalighat and Kidderpore. Large amounts of gold jewelry are being smuggled in everyday from Bangladesh and smelted in some of Calcutta's most congested districts, causing what the state pollution control board (PCB) sees as an alarming environmental and health problem.

Fumes from chemicals used to smelt impure gold is a major source of localised pollution in these densely populated areas. Various NGOs have expressed serious apprehensions about the situation, and the Baranagar Municipal Corporation has been forced to hold a public meeting on the issue.

In mid-April 1995, a senior PC13 Official had hinted that there were increasing signs of Calcutta becoming the most important centre for gold smuggling after the infamous Bombay blasts made the western coast unfit for smuggling operations.

In Bombay, gold was normally smuggled in bulk, in biscuit form. But the peculiarity of the Calcutta operations is that the stuff is being brought in the form jewelry. And that is the root cause behind pollution and health hazard due to smelting.

"Gold that comes in bricks or biscuits is pure, 24 carat stuff. In fact, we have to bring it down to 22 carat by adding copper, but melting that gold does not require acid. We only need a small furnace, which gives heat which is a little above the one from your kitchen gas oven," says Purna Sarkar, a goldsmith from Bowbazar's sonapatti (gold belt). He denies any health hazards in this kind of goldsmithery.

However, if the gold is brought in as jewelry, it has to be smelted, using aqua regia, a highly concentrated mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acids, and then purified. Only after that can the gold be reused to make jewelry.

The smelting method is fraught with danger. Says Kalachand Saba, a goldsmith in Sonagachi, "I do it on my terrace, so that fumes rise up and disperse fast. And after putting the acid in, I move away as fast as possible from the spot. Despite that, I need the juice of 10- 12 lemons, and a pint of English liquour to counter the effect of the acid fumes," Saha said.

But that is not the way the operations are taking place in the tiny one- room affairs in congested parts of the city. Reports say that up to six smelters work in each room, and the fumes coil up and stay in the room. The corrosive fluid wastes flow out into open drains outside, still fuming. Most smelters have been reported to have developed major respiratory problems.

The PCB'S internal reports and spot checks have found the situation alarming. "There have been repeated complaints from residents of localities like Kashipore and Baranagar about large-scale environmental problems due to acid fumes," said Bishwajeet Mukherjee, law officer, state PCB. There have also been formal complaints from Barabazar (which earlier was never a gold smelting centre).

The nature of the complaints from Baranagar forced the PCB to urge the municipal chairperson of the ward to convene a meeting of goldsmiths on August 29, 1995. The goldsmiths admitted that "large amounts of nitric and sulfuric acids are being used to smelt gold". Some guidelines were spelt out to protect the environment, but the goldsmiths' organisations refused to obtain any clearance from the state PCB, which according to Deb Kumar Basu, PCB chairperson, is illegal.

The entire operation of smuggling is highly organised. The gold carriers - mostly women - come from Bangladesh. "Mostly women, virtually in tatters and evidently poor, come in wearing heavy jewelry and sell them on our side and walk away with the money. The security forces, even if they want to, cannot body-search the women," Mukherjee said. Sometimes men and women bring sacks full of smaller pieces of jewelry embedded in lozenges and toffees.

In the second stage, the gold is brought to Calcutta. Specialised couriers take the gold to the city's sex districts - an excellent terrain for covert operations with its impenetrable hideouts, and of course, a well-oiled police support.

Amitabha Das, a doctor involved with the World Health Organization- funded AIDs awareness campaign in Calcutta's sex districts, says, "I am extremely worried. As it is, the health conditions of these girls are fragile. If you add this level of toxic fumes to their already abject living conditions, they've had it."

And all this perhaps cannot be stopped because of the well-honed institutionalised support that this hazardous goldrush enjoys. Besides, according to a Bowbazar goldsmith, where the annual demand for gold in the Indian market is 200 tonne, our annual yield is only five tonne. "The jewelry industry cannot survive without smuggling," says Purna Sarkar.

The operators do not hide that they are powerful. "But for this smuggled gold, you'd see all these big, glittering showrooms shut shop," said Saha.Then he added menacingly, "What are you looking for? If the sarkar (government) cannot catch us, what can the PCB do? In any case, who is the sarkar? We are!"

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