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Coronavirus wipes the shine off India's diamond city

Ankita Mukhopadhyay Surat
October 7, 2020

The pandemic has hobbled India's diamond industry in Surat, where workers say their wages have been cut in half. Although factories are open, social distancing has reduced production capacity.

The world-famous Koh-I-Noor diamond on display in Bangalore
Image: Getty Images/AFP

At a first glance, Surat, the economic capital of the western state of Gujarat, appears like any other Indian city. On a closer look, the city glitters – literally. Known as India's diamond hub, Surat polishes around 80% of the world's diamonds and is home to around 750,000 diamond workers.  

In the area of Katargam, the sound of heavy machinery polishing diamonds drowns out the sounds of the city.

Ketan, a diamond polisher, toils away at the machine, polishing diamonds, along with four others. He recently returned to Surat from his village in northern Gujarat.

Ketan believes the current situation for diamond workers is bleak, despite a phased reopening of factories since June, after they were shut following the lockdown imposed by the Indian government to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Read moreCoronavirus: India's economy braces for lackluster recovery

"My income is half of what it was before the lockdown. This year, I can't even buy new clothes for my children on Diwali [Hindu festival]. My friends in the diamond industry who went back to their villages don't ever want to come back to the city," he told DW.

A diamond worker examines stones in Surat
Hard times are expected for Surat's 750,000 diamond workersImage: Ankita Mukhopadhyay/DW

Ketan feels let down by the state government, which left the diamond industry to fend for itself in March, after the nationwide lockdown came into effect.

"We [diamond polishers] got together and pleaded to the collector [district administrative head] of Surat many times to help us, to no avail," Ketan said.

"We voted the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power. The government should help us in some way. But I don't think they will listen to us, they will just use us as bait when it's time for the elections."

Read moreCan India's lockdown contain the coronavirus?

Little government support for a thriving industry

When India's federal government imposed a nationwide lockdown, the $23 billion (€19.5 billion) diamond industry was left in the lurch, receiving little to no government support.

"The government knows that the diamond industry earns a lot of money, so they didn't help us. We collected funds on our own to organize medical camps and distribute ration kits to 400,000 people, without any help from the government," said Babubhai Kathiriya, a member of the Surat Diamond Association (SDA), a non-profit run by local businessmen.

Vasant, a diamond polisher, believes the government creates more problems than it solves.

"The Surat Municipal Corporation allowed diamond factories to reopen in June but has said that only two diamond polishers can sit beside each other at the machine. At least five people are needed to work together to meet the daily quota of polished diamonds. How can we do that with just two people at the machine?"

According to Kathiriya, if the restrictions continue, it will have long-term effects on the industry.

A diamond market in Surat
Surat's workshops polish around 80% of the world's diamonds Image: Ankita Mukhopadhyay/DW

"In the long run, the coronavirus is a big hassle for us. This business requires people to sit close to each other. Each machine to polish diamond is expensive, so forcing just two people to work on the machine means the factory owner works at a loss," said Kathiriya.

"After factories reopened in June, there were several cases reported among workers as factories defied the regulations. The municipal corporation simply sealed the factories," he added. "Now, we have reached an understanding with the corporation that they should just seal the floor, not the entire factory, so that workers don't go out of work."

Read moreCoronavirus: Indian states abandon labor protection to revive economy

No work anywhere else 

The 5,000-odd diamond factories in Surat employ mainly two types of workers – those who deal with rough diamonds (raw material) and those who polish and shape the diamond.

The latter bore the maximum brunt of the lockdown and continue to face problems.

"Rough diamond is sourced from abroad. When the lockdown started, trade stopped, so merchants couldn't purchase rough diamonds. This led to a complete halt on production and factories closed, leaving workers in the lurch."

"Several workers from the Saurashtra region of Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, waited in Surat for two months for factories to reopen, but facing the possibility of starvation, they went home. Now, work has begun in a limited capacity, but workers refuse to come back without guarantees," Alpesh Sanghvi, founder of the Arihannt Diamond Institute, a training center, in Surat, told DW. 

Diamond polishers like Ketan, who work in small factories, are coming back to work because they were unable to find work anywhere else.

"I can't work on the farm, as the crops died because it rained too much this year. I have a very specialized skill so I can't even look for work in another sector in the city. I am also earning about 50% of what I used to earn before the lockdown, but I have to manage as I don't have an option," he said.

Read moreHas India’s Hindu nationalist government mismanaged the country’s response to the coronavirus?

Conditions in Ketan's factory are dire. Around 50 workers use one washroom, and water given to the workers is unfiltered. The factory owner, who wished to remain anonymous, said economic difficulties from the pandemic forced him to compromise on sanitation.

"I have multiple problems right now. My workers are refusing to come back to the factory. I have brought back three workers on a personal guarantee that I will pay for their healthcare if they get the coronavirus. I am myself polishing diamonds to meet market demand. How can I afford drinkable water in such circumstances?" he told DW.

Small factories, large issues

Diamond polishers' worries grew further last month when Jaysukh Gajera, a prominent union leader, committed suicide.

Gajera's family believes that the current state of the diamond polishing industry and his own financial troubles drove him to take the extreme step.

"During the lockdown, many diamond polishers lost their jobs and were not given their wages for the month of March. He fought alongside the factory workers to get them their pay and even distributed ration kits. He was really upset about the dire conditions of the diamond polishers," Gajera's brother told DW.

Diamond workers in a workshop
Social distancing is hard where diamond workers need to work close togetherImage: Ankita Mukhopadhyay/DW

Since March, 13 diamond polishers have taken their lives by committing suicide. The situation continues to look bleak for diamond workers, with an economic recession looming on the horizon and India's political tensions with China, one of the biggest export markets for diamonds.

According to Dharmik Patel, a local social worker, poor working conditions for diamond workers is just the tip of the iceberg of problems.

Read moreMigrant workers in India struggle to shake off coronavirus disruption

"There's a lot of pressure on workers to come back and start work in the factories," he said. 

"Smaller factory owners are threatening to take away jobs if the workers don't come back. The larger factories can at least directly export their diamonds, so they can afford to pay workers. But smaller factories don't have a direct export line, which means their traders haven't done any trading in the last three months. Many workers are currently working unpaid."