Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Indian diamond Industry: Plight of the desperate poor workers

In my previous post, I talked about the effects of the ongoing economic recession on the Indian diamond industry in Surat. As there are no fresh demands, diamond traders have shut down their diamond processing units and hundreds of skilled diamond cutters and polishers are out of job now. But the stories of the sufferings and losses of the Indian diamond workers do not end there. By this time, all of you are well aware about the high rate of suicide among Indian farmers in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala and Punjab that has been going on for a long time in India. Now, that same trend has already started in the diamond industry. Yes, the economic recession is not only taking away jobs of the diamond workers of Surat but also their lives.

Diamond workers are committing suicide:

Forty year old Kalpesh Jadav was a diamond polisher. For the last nine years, he has been working in the diamond industry. Now, with Rs. 5000 income, Kalpesh and his wife, Pushba, 38 are dreaming to have their first child. Kalpesh has been saving money for some time for his unborn child. Unfortunately, the economic recession destroyed his dream. Kalpesh used to work in Sanghavi Diamonds, one of the biggest diamond firms in Asia. Due to economic recession, Kalpesh lost his job. All his savings were spent in buying daily necessities like food, clothes and paying utility bills. Soon he started borrowing money to support his family. Without any money and mouting debt Kalpesh became very much frustrated. On January 10, 2009, Kalpesh did not return home. His wife filed a missing person’s report in the police. After few days, police recovered Kalpesh’s dead body from the Tapti river that has been surrounding the city of Surat. Police later declared that Kalpesh committed suicide. Kalpesh Jadav is one of the seventy one unfortunate diamond workers who took their lives after losing their jobs to the ongoing economic recession since October 2008.

The diamond city of Surat boasts some of the richest business families of India but diamond workers like Kalpesh, who work relentlessly, do not see much improvement in their lives. In November 2008, the Wall Street Journal published an article on the diamond industry of Surat. It said that the workers in the Indian diamond industry do not receive high salary. For years, their wages have remained flat. Due to poor salary, a large portion of the diamond workers already left the industry. This happened when the diamond industry was prosperous. Last year, the workers went on a strike demanding an increase in the salary which was followed by a 20% rise. So, in one sense, the diamond workers of Surat were never very well off. Most of them earned enough to support their families. Still, it is true that the diamond industry of Surat brought positive changes among people and lifted around half million families from abject poverty. Within nine months half of the diamond industry employees were laid off.

Want to sell your kidneys?

Thirty five year old Udaji Thakore lives in Aseda village in Deesa Taluka. He is a diamond factory worker and had no works in hand. Desperate for money, Udaji wanted to sell his kidneys. Luckily, he was forcefully stopped from making such a big mistake. Udaji is one of the 2,50,000 helpless diamond factory workers of the Banaskantha district in Gujarat. Udaji neither received any help from the government nor from the local NGOs. Having sold all their valuables, with no work and no money at hand, many diamond factory workers of the Banaskantha district are desperate for money. Ashok Purohit, President, Banaskantha Diamond Mazdoor Union, said that it would be a matter of time before large number of kidney agents would try to lure these poor workers and make them sell their organs for money.

Tough election for the Bharatiya Janata Party:

Surat is one of the strongholds of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Since 1989, they continuously won elections in this territory and diamond workers votes are very important for them. Now, things have changed a lot. After the economic recession, diamond workers did not receive any financial assistance from the government which made them very upset. Ashok Purohit said that the diamond workers of the Banaskantha district would boycott the BJP and the Congress in the upcoming Lok Sabha election.

Not ready to give up yet:

Not every diamond industry workers have become so frustrated. Many workers went to their villages and turned to farming. Many other diamond industry workers like Ajay Kulkarni are still determined to survive the recession. Twenty eight year old Ajay Kulkarni has been working in the diamond industry for the last twelve years. A father of two daughters, Kulkarni lost his job six months ago. Kulkarni and his wife sold all the jewelries and used those money as downpayments to obtain a rickshaw. Despite serious competition, Ajay Kulkarni said that he had been making the same amount of money he used to make as a diamond worker but he took a big loan with 24% interest rate which worries him. Still, Kulkarni is determined to survive in the tough market.

Financial support for the children of the diamond workers:

So far, the diamond traders gave major financial support to their workers. On March 17, 2009, The Surat Diamond Association (SDA) and Ahmedabad Diamond Association (ADA), two major diamond trading associations, donated Rs. 10 million as educational assistance for a total of 16,494 school children of jobless diamond workers who are studying in 140 schools in Surat. The Gems and Jewellery Export Council (GJEPC) also disbursed Rs. 20 million for the jobless workers.

The worst thing is, the state government of Gujarat did not come to help these poor workers. In December, Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat, rebuked the diamond traders and said that they should work for the interest of their workers and refused to give any kind of financial support. Later, the Gujarat government declared to give low interest farm loans for diamond workers who turned to farming and a monthly stipend of Rs.2500 to workers who lost their jobs but it was not well received by the diamond workers. According to them, it was “too little and too late.” The diamond traders’ body also requested the government to give out financial help. Political leaders are regularly visiting Surat but any kind of help would come after four or five months as the country is observing its 15th general election.

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(This entry was originally published in April 2009 and it is based on the context of that time. Unfortunately, due to technical reasons, it got deleted and against it is posted now here for the readers.)

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