Diamonds and Death in India

Revolutionary Worker #1091, February 18, 2001, posted at

They cut and polish diamonds behind doors kept locked by employers guarding against theft. Some died trapped behind those doors, survivors say, when a devastating earthquake shook western India. Diamond polishers say 127 of their co-workers were fatally crushed Friday in stampedes at factory exits that were bolted shut. 'The owners are only bothered about diamonds. What do they care about us? They were scared we would take the diamonds and run,' said Vimal Patel, a diamond cutter."

An Associated Press report about Ahmedabad, India

Indian-cut diamonds are a leading foreign exchange earner for India, with diamond exports earning $6.8 billion in 2000. Rough gems are imported from Belgium, London and Israel, cut and polished, and sold to the United States, Hong Kong, Belgium, Israel, Japan, Thailand and elsewhere.

Apart from the security guards and bars on the windows, the nondescript buildings in Ahmedabad are not obviously diamond factories. But inside such factories in Gujarat--the state hit by the recent earthquake--workers cut and polish 80 percent of the diamonds in India.

Estimates of the number of children working in the diamond industry in India are as high as 100,000. A recent report on conditions in the diamond plants of one town in Gujarat found children, mostly boys between 12 and 13 years old, polishing diamonds for an average of 7 to 9 hours a day in unhygienic conditions.

In Ahmedabad, 600,000 diamond cutters and polishers work in cramped conditions, 100 to 300 a room, earning about $100 a month. Narmada Natwarlal was working in one such factory when the quake struck. She ran down one flight from the third floor to find the stairwell jammed with workers trying to escape. People were shouting to have the gate opened. She said, "There was nowhere else to go but through the window." Natwarlal suffered cuts and bruises when she broke the window pane and used her sari as a rope to climb down to safety. Now she fears she will never be able to cut diamonds again because of her injuries.

Twenty-two-year-old Poonam Chunilal found himself smothered in a pile of people with 15 to 20 people on top of him. He survived with broken ribs, a fractured foot and head injuries when other workers heard his cry for help and pulled him from under the bodies of two friends. Chunilal said, "They definitely locked the gate, or so many would not have been trampled. We would have been able to get out into the open." According to the workers, 80 people died at this factory.

In the aftermath of the January 26 earthquake, diamond work in the affected areas was temporarily suspended during the search for quake survivors. "Industry observers" predicted it would take months for the situation to stabilize enough for work to resume.

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