Blasts dim diamond trade lustre

Neeta Lal
Filed on July 17, 2011

MUMBAI — The great ‘diamond rain’ — which sent sparklers worth millions of dollars flying into the air at Opera House — during the recent Mumbai bomb blasts, has once again spotlighted the perils of one of the world’s most glamorous trades.

Diamonds are big business in India. Last year, the country imported 150 million carats of rough diamonds and exported 59.9 million of cut and polished diamonds valued at $18.24 billion. Overall, traders disclose, India processes seven in 10 of the world’s diamonds.

According to industry figures, the Mumbai diamond trade on an average logs a daily turnover of Rs2 billion. About 60 per cent of the world’s diamond processing passes through the Opera House area, the site of the most powerful of the three coordinated blasts on July 13 which killed 18 people and injured 133.

The merchants here mostly hail from the cities of Bhavnagar or Surat in India’s wealthiest western state of Gujarat. Surat — known as the diamond capital of the world — cuts and polishes nearly 90 per cent of the world’s diamonds. However, Mumbai’s diamond trade began in the seventies in a building called Panchratna – or ‘five gems’ in Hindi. The bourse has since expanded into about 10 buildings, with up to 4,500 stores.

Diamond merchants are known to conceal the rocks in clenched fists throughout the trading hours till 7.30 pm. They then transfer the rocks to their zipped pockets before hitting Khau Galli — a snack street — after wrapping up work. The merchants dress innocuously to blend in seamlessly with the teeming millions of Mumbai, a metropolis that hosts a whopping 20 million people.

However, the terror strikes have forced the traders to pontificate over shifting closer to Gujarat’s C&P units in Bhavnagar or Surat. Traditionally, while Surat’s traders deal in all kinds of polished diamonds, a section of brokers from Amreli specializes in small diamond pieces—called diamond dust— while those from Botat deal only in single cut diamonds.

The Maharashtra government has constructed new diamond trading buildings — the freshly-minted Bharat Diamond Bourse at the Bandra-Kurla in suburban Mumbai.

The diamond-shaped bourse houses 2,500 offices and sprawls over 20 million square feet. It boasts of formal security, including armed guards, a feature that was missing in the Opera House area.

However, many traders have had reservations about shifting here, despite its proximity to domestic/international airport and main train station, due to the distance from their homes. A majority of the city’s diamond traders live in south Mumbai and are reluctant to make the longer commute, often with their diamonds, to Bandra-Kurla. But now, with the city’s changed security dynamics, many are actively contemplating shifting business operations to safer locations.

In the aftermath of the strikes, the process of shifting about 20 big diamond units from buildings at Opera House like Prasad, Panchratna to Bandra-Kurla Complex by next month is also being accelerated.

Jitesh Kabra, 48, a diamond merchant, told this correspondent over phone that his community is caught between a rock and hard place. “We’re fed up of the losses we keep suffering due to bomb explosions,” he said. “But what choice do we have? We can’t suddenly up and leave a business we’ve nurtured for decades. ”

Meanwhile, pan-India diamond trade bodies – including the Surat Diamond Association (SDA), the apex body of diamond industry in Gujarat – have appealed to the Center for a special force for the security of the diamond industry.

They feel the industry “has become a soft target for terror strikes” and deserves better.

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