National Geographic : 2009 Jan
• news magazine based in Cochin. When a baby is born in Kerala, a grandmother rubs a gold coin in honey and places a drop of the liquid on the child s tongue for good luck. At all major occa- sions over the rst six months, from baptism to rst ingestion of solid food, the child receives gi s of gold jewelry: earrings, necklaces, waist- lets. en, when the child is three years old, a learned family member takes a gold coin and traces words on his or her tongue to bestow the gi of eloquence. By themselves, none of these ceremonies captures how deeply gold is ingrained in the Indian economy. "Gold is the basis of our nan- cial system," says Babu, the jewelry store manager. "People see it as the best form of security, and nothing else lets you get cash as quickly." Hoard- ing gold as an intergenerational family nest egg is an ancient tradition in India. So, too, is pawning gold jewelry for emergency loans--- and then buying it back. Commercial banks still o er the service, a er their attempt to stop it in the 1990s resulted in riots and suicides by debt-laden clients and a government command to continue the practice. Many farmers in Kerala, however, prefer the speed and easy access of "private financiers" like George Varghese, who operates out of his home three hours south of Cochin. A balding man in his 70s, Varghese says he han- dles around half a million dollars in pawned gold a month, even more during harvest and wedding seasons. It s almost a perfect busi- ness, for even with interest rates that can reach one percent a day on short-term loans, very few people default. No Indian wants to let go of their gold. "Even when gold hit $1,000 an ounce, nobody sold their jewelry or coins," says Varghese. " is is their nest egg, and they trust it to keep growing." As the price of the metal goes up, however, poor Indian families are having a harder time raising the gold they need for dowries. ough the dowry retains a social function---balancing the wealth between the families of bride and groom---the rising price of gold has only fueled its abusive side. In the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu, the struggle to acquire gold has led to dowry-related domestic violence (usually when grooms families beat the brides for bringing too little gold) and selective abortions (committed by families desperate to avoid the nancial burden of a daughter). Even in Kerala, the pressure is sometimes too much for the poor to take. Rajam Chidamba- ram, a 59-year-old widow living in a slum on the outskirts of Cochin, recently found a young man to marry her only daughter, age 27. e groom s family, however, demanded a dowry far out of her reach: 25 sovereigns, or 200 grams, of gold (worth $1,650 eight years ago, but more than $5,200 today). Chidambaram, a cleaning woman, has only the two earrings she wears; the gold necklace she once owned went to pay o her deceased husband s hospital bills. "I had to agree to the groom s demand," Chidambaram says, wiping away tears. "If I refuse, my daugh- ter will stay home forever." In the end, local nanciers advanced a loan for her daughter s dowry. Chidambaram may have averted the shame of an unmarried daugh- ter, but she is now burdened with a debt that she may spend the rest of her life trying to repay. ROSEMERY SÁNCHEZ CONDORI is just nine years old, but the backs of her hands are burnished like aged leather. at s what happens when a girl spends time pounding rocks under the Andean sun. Ever since Rosemery s father fell ill in the mines of La Rinconada eight years ago, her mother has worked 11-hour days collecting rocks near the mines and hammering them into smaller bits to nd ecks of overlooked gold. On school holidays, Rosemery sometimes helps her mother on the mountain. It is child labor, perhaps, but for a girl whose family is living In small-scale mines, searching for gold is a family affair. Of the world's 12 to 15 million artisanal gold miners, an estimated 30 percent are women and children.