Ending the gold obsession

Gold mining has been a serious threat to local communities whose habitats were invaded by gold bounty hunters
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First Published: Wed, May 15 2013. 08 25 PM IST
All of the government’s efforts and the irrationally high global prices have failed to douse Indians’ desire for the glitter of the metal. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
All of the government’s efforts and the irrationally high global prices have failed to douse Indians’ desire for the glitter of the metal. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
So damaging is the impact of the Indian obsession with gold that only a fierce anti-gold campaign can save us from its destructive stranglehold.
Isn’t it time some Indian celebrity did a Brigitte Bardot for the anti-gold movement in India? The famous French actress and model was the first celebrity to raise Cain for the anti-sealing and anti-fur movement during the 1970s. Following Bardot’s brave example, other celebrities got into the act to expose the horrors of the fur trade.
As a consequence, fur sales in the UK fell 75% between 1985 and 1990, and, of course, a new movement was born, best symbolized by a slogan from Lynx, a British animal rights organization, “It takes up to 40 dumb animals to make a fur coat. But only one to wear it.”
We need to give gold the kind of bad name fur has gotten for the sheer damage it does to our environment and our financial health. Forty-two years after the US did away with the gold standard, which John Maynard Keynes had famously derided as “a barbarous relic”, Indians cling to the yellow metal with an obsession that is as primitive as it is wasteful.
All of the government’s efforts and the irrationally high global prices have failed to douse Indians’ desire for the glitter of the metal. The price of gold, which stood at $271 an ounce on 10 September 2001, hit $1,450 an oz this month and yet through this sharp rise, India’s appetite for the metal has only grown.
According to the World Gold Council, last year Indians accounted for 860 of the total global demand of 4,405 tonnes of gold. What’s worse, nearly 75% of the gold demand in India is accounted for by jewellery. Trade data released this week showed that India’s gold imports more than doubled in April, to $7.5 billion, causing an already alarming trade deficit to widen further.
But rising gold imports are a worry not just for the finance minister. There is a huge price to our insatiable demand for gold. India, the world’s largest consumer of gold, produces very little gold of its own, but Indians have in their lockers thousands of tonnes of gold, far more in fact, than what is held in the Reserve Bank of India’s vaults.
With depleting reserves of fresh gold being mined, prospecting companies are extending their giant mechanical tentacles to remote and ecologically fragile regions of the world, the Indonesian rain forests, for instance.
Even the most modern mining practices require vast swathes of rocks to be dumped in seas or even vast virtual land-fills in forests.
One of the main reasons for gold’s inexorable climb is that demand far outstrips mine production. And there lies the tale. The amount of gold in available landmasses is poorly concentrated and is highly energy-intensive to extract.
To get at it, companies have to carry out massive blasting operations. Rough estimates indicate that extracting one ounce of gold through open-pit mining leaves 30 tonnes of rubble. Do the math and a single gold bracelet could be destroying some 40,000 tonnes of earth.
Gold mining has been a serious threat to local communities—the Galamsey of West Africa, the Igorot of the Philippines, and the Macuxi and Yanomami of the Amazon are considered endangered ever since their habitats were invaded by gold bounty hunters. Mining companies use cyanide and mercury to extract gold from crushed ore and inevitably these contaminate the water stream.
In Indonesia, the government sued a major US mining company, which having extracted all available gold at one of the mines, packed its bags and left. The government’s case was premised on its claim that in the course of mining the gold, the US company had intentionally dumped poisonous waste, such as arsenic and mercury, into the Buyat Bay. This waste poisoned the fish in the bay, depriving the local people of their main source of protein and economic livelihood.
In Dreams in Folklore (1958), Sigmund Freud writes: “How old this connection between excrement and gold is can be seen from an observation by Jeremias: gold, according to ancient oriental mythology, is ‘the excrement of hell’.”
That holds true for India where gold is inextricably linked with the commodification of women as part of bride-price. Often, a woman’s worth in the marriage market is driven by the quantity of gold that comes with her. Which is why, come the wedding season, irrespective of where prices are, the demand for gold surges as households beg and borrow to put together the necessary quantity of gold that has been agreed upon as part of the negotiated dowry.
And to what avail?
If it was supposed to be cushion for married women to protect them from the vagaries of marital inequities, it has failed miserably.
It’s excrement that needs to be ejected.
Sundeep Khanna is executive editor, Livemint. Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, May 15 2013. 08 25 PM IST