Gujarat: ‘Our diamond bourse is bigger than yours!’

Why 2023 was probably not the best year to inaugurate the world’s largest diamond bourse in Surat. Also, about deepfakes and donkeys...

Not a good time for the world's largest diamond bourse? (photo: Wikipedia)
Not a good time for the world's largest diamond bourse? (photo: Wikipedia)
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Sujata Anandan

Will diamonds make Surat sparkle?

December 2023 may not have been the best time to inaugurate the world’s largest diamond bourse in Surat, given the uncertainties in the trade. The 2015-initiated project spread across 35.54 acres, with an available usable space of 6.6 million sq ft, per official sources, is said to beat the world’s largest office building, the Pentagon.

Only 27 units within the bourse have reportedly been sold as of 17 December, when PM Narendra Modi inaugurated the complex. A sum of Rs 631 crore is due to the builders, and a Surat district court has directed the administrators to deposit a bank guarantee of Rs 100 crore until the dispute regarding unpaid dues is settled.

The bourse is spread across nine interconnected 15-storey towers, with offices ranging from 300 sq ft to 75,000 sq ft. It is expected that it will include 27 retail outlets for diamond jewellery to close the value chain. Built at a cost of Rs 35,000 per sq ft, the Surat bourse is only marginally less expensive than Mumbai’s Bharat Diamond Bourse, where the price of spaces is currently at Rs 39,000 per sq ft.

The bourse constitutes a concerted attempt to shift the diamond trade from Mumbai and lure diamond traders to Surat, which boasts a port and now an ‘international airport’, also inaugurated on 17 December.

The new airport terminal is capable of handling 35 lakh passengers annually, and up to 1,800 passengers during peak hours. All of this is meant to help the Surat Diamond Workers’ Union, which claims as many as 30 artisans died by suicide over the last year.

Several small and medium-sized factories here have not reopened after Diwali. Industry insiders concede that retrenchments appear inevitable. Data revealed by the ministry of commerce under the RTI Act shows that the export value of cut and polished diamonds fell to Rs 10,495 crore in October 2023, from Rs 15,594 crore last year.

The diamond trade is estimated to engage at least a million people in Gujarat; but the global downturn and import restrictions by G-7 countries on Russian-origin diamonds — to be directly obtained from January 2024, and including those processed by third-party countries like India from March 2024 — have caused huge uncertainty.

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Opera House, Mumbai
Opera House, Mumbai

The diamond master plan

Diamond merchants, mostly Gujarati, have long operated from the overcrowded Opera House in south Mumbai, where traffic density is among the highest in the world. The merchants, the cutters and the polishers have historically preferred their dark and damp cubbyholes, which they considered ‘lucky’, eschewing the shiny, bright bourse set up in the Bandra–Kurla complex by the Maharashtra government in 2010.

It is a hereditary trade, the skills passed down through generations of cutters, polishers and angadias — the traditional couriers. While the merchants employing them are Hindus or Jains, these cutters, polishers and angadias are mostly from Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, largely Muslim.

When Muslims in Mumbai were targeted during the 1992–93 riots by the Shiv Sena, these workers went back to their villages. When peace finally returned, diamond merchants found themselves at sea without the workers. They appealed to Bal Thackeray and sent agents to the workers’ villages to persuade them to return.

Here lies the reason why shifting the diamond industry to Gujarat may be a doomed project, unlike chief minister Madhav Singh Solanki’s offer of a 15-year tax holiday and ‘peace’ to Mumbai’s textile mill owners.

The diamond merchants’ reluctance stems from security concerns and lack of ‘peace’ for their predominantly Muslim workers whose safety the BJP regime will never be able to guarantee.

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The year of fakes

Fraudsters hogged the headlines in Gujarat with astounding regularity this year. We began with several people posing as advisors to the prime minister or officials in the PMO, basking in official hospitality and privileges, throwing their weight around. Now comes news of a fake government office and a fake toll plaza.

An IAS officer and a junior engineer were detained by the police for running four fake offices, two of them on paper only. Astounded at the scale of their enterprise, the police requested a special investigating team and an auditor.

If conmen on their own rolls swindling the government of at least Rs 18.5 crore was an embarrassment, that paled in the face of the fake toll plaza, which remained ‘undetected’ for 1.5 years. The accused created a private road to bypass the official toll plaza on the Bamanbore-Kutch national highway between Morbi and Wankaner. Retired IPS officer Ramesh Savani has claimed it collected around Rs 82 crore from commuters over 18 months.

Nobody complained because the accused charged Rs 20 to Rs 200, as opposed to the actual toll tax of Rs 110 to Rs 595 for cars and heavy vehicles on the national highway. Curiously, even the agency that operated the official toll plaza refused to file a complaint. The ‘private operators’ were seen as politically influential.

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Donkey jokes? Think twice before you make them
Donkey jokes? Think twice before you make them

From jokes to jackpot

Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, is said to have bathed in an ass’ milk to keep her skin wrinkle-free and fair; a practice apparently also followed by Poppaea, wife of the Roman emperor Nero, which required an entourage of female donkeys to travel everywhere with her.

The world over, though, the donkey is primarily a beast of burden, as in India. Since industrialisation, their numbers have dwindled. The animal census bears this out: only 1,428 donkeys were left in Tamil Nadu in 2019 for example, compared to 9,183 in 2012. But now, we may be coming full circle. A prominent ingredient in the production of specialty soaps and balms, donkey’s milk has seen rising demand from the cosmetics industry, giving a fresh fillip to donkey farmers in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Gujarat.

A 130 g cake of handmade soap with donkey’s milk costs Rs 799 on local e-commerce platforms and $16.77 in the US.

Since a donkey produces only around half-a-litre of milk per day on average, they cannot be used as milch animals on a small scale; a farmer must have several. Each indigenous ass yields only 350 ml a day, and only for six months at a time, while the Halari breed from Gujarat yields a litre.

Dhirendra Solanki, from a village in Patan, therefore wisely invested Rs 22 lakh in 20 donkeys. Solanki sells the milk to industries and dairies in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where the milk is fed to children and the sick to ‘boost immunity’. Prices range from Rs 5,000 to Rs 7,000 per litre.

Kutch, of course, has long been known as the land of white asses. So, think twice before you joke about the donkey or dismiss it as worthless.

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