Rapaport Magazine

City of dreams

Surat’s diamond trade has changed the fortunes of the artisans from Gujarat’s Saurashtra province.

By Melvyn Thomas

A decade ago, Mukesh Lathiya arrived in Surat, India’s diamond-manufacturing capital, as a 21-year-old from Adtala — a small hamlet in the Bhavnagar district of Gujarat state’s Saurashtra region. Many youngsters from his village were employed in small diamond factories and earning a good amount of money from crafting, sorting, and planning cutting patterns for the sparkling stones. Every year during the Diwali festival, these young diamond karigars (artisans) in their 20s and 30s would visit the village on motorcycles — a 10-hour trip along the 400-kilometer road from Surat.

Lathiya’s family consisted of his two brothers, a sister, and his parents. They were all dependent on the agricultural income from their 2 acres of ancestral land. But that was not enough for the survival of a big family, and Lathiya decided to move out of the village. As was the case for many highly educated Indians, working in the US and other foreign countries was a dream; for Lathiya, Surat was his America, and that’s where his path led him.

Working his way up

Lathiya had a few acquaintances from home in Surat, and he started on a monthly salary of INR 4,000 (about $54) while he was still in the learning stage. Within six months, he learned the art of cutting and polishing diamonds on the emery wheels. In Surat, the contract and job workers — those with fixed wages and those getting paid per stone, respectively — usually move from one unit to another for better wage prospects. Lathiya was no exception; he, too, worked in dozens of small units for over five years.

But destiny had greater things in store for him. A diamond merchant with whom he was closely acquainted offered him a business opportunity. The merchant invested money in helping Lathiya set up a small diamond business, and provided him with rough for processing. Lathiya started with one emery wheel in 2010.

A decade down the line, he is running a small diamond unit and employs about 20 karigars. His annual turnover is somewhere around INR 30 million (about $404,000), and he recently teamed up with a large diamond company to process stones above 5 carats.

“I am from a farmer’s family,” he says. “Saurashtra is a parched area where we get very scant rainfall during the monsoon season. It is a [matter] of pure luck, how much one can cultivate on the farm with scant water. I toiled hard for 15 hours at a stretch, with just half an hour of lunch break, to learn the art of diamond polishing.”

He recounts the story with a big smile on his face, looking at tiny gems through his loupe inside his 1,500-square-foot unit in Surat’s Katargam neighborhood.

“I landed in Surat carrying a small suitcase. In just 10 years, I have my own house in [the neighborhood of] Varachha, my children are studying in an English-medium school, and I rebuilt my old house in the village,” he shares. “The diamond industry has taught me to take calculated risks and move ahead on the path of success.”

Lathiya is not an isolated case. There are many like him, with stories to tell about Surat’s diamond industry. These artisans have made Surat their karamabhoomi — the land where one works — and Saurashtra their janmabhoomi — the land where they were born. The majority of these diamond karigars belong to farmers’ families and have internalized the qualities of hard work and passion that have run in their blood for ages.

Varachha and Katargam

Crossing the underpass near the Surat railway station, one enters Varachha, one of the city’s main diamond domains. Its prolific diamond manufacturing activity extends into the nearby Katargam area, which is home to some of the world’s leading diamond companies — Dharmanandan Diamonds, Venus Jewels, Shree Ram Krishna (SRK) Exports, and Kiran Gems, among others — as well as numerous medium and small-scale diamond units.

Out of Surat’s total population of 5.5 million, Varachha and Katargam contain about 1.5 million members of the Patel caste who migrated from Saurashtra to Surat in the last six decades. In that time, the diamond community in Surat has gone from a cottage industry to the global manufacturing hub it is today, boasting an average annual turnover of INR 1.5 trillion ($20.2 billion).

It owes its status largely to its highly skilled karigars and its low labor costs. The artisans there earn wages based on how many stones they cut per day. Diamonds in melee and star sizes, which are usually single-cut, have a labor cost of INR 12 to INR 14 ($0.16 to $0.19) apiece, while slightly larger, double-cut diamonds command INR 30 to INR 80 ($0.40 to $1.08) each.

Still, as Lathiya’s story shows, the glittering Surat diamond industry can change the fortunes of the karigars it attracts. Skilled and semi-skilled artisans there earn average monthly wages of INR 18,000 to INR 150,000 (about $243 to $2,022).

In total, there are over 5,000 big, medium and small diamond businesses in Varachha and Katargam, employing about half a million karigars. The majority of them hail from the Saurashtra region, while others come from states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha. While Saurashtra has its own cutting and polishing centers that employ another half-million karigars — including in the town of Palitana and in the Bhavnagar, Amreli and Surendranagar districts — these work at small diamond units that mainly do job work for diamond businesses in Surat.

For love or money

Though there were few Saurashtrians in the industry during the 1970s, the scene changed in the ’90s. Young migrants from the region arrived in hordes for employment in the diamond trade, lured by the established diamond barons. The primary reason behind the mass migration was famine, coupled with scanty rainfall during the monsoon season, and limited resources for employment generation.

Harshad Khandali, 35, is one of the Saurashtrian artisans who have made their way to Surat. Khandali, who has worked in the industry for the last decade, hails from the Botad taluka (block) in the Bhavnagar district. At home, he was not finding a girl to marry, as he spent his time working in the field with his father. Boys his age who were employed in Surat’s diamond industry were the first choice for girls’ parents in Saurashtra, so he decided to move to Surat and become a diamond karigar.

“I am from an orthodox Patel community,” he relates. “For the sake of my marriage with a girl whom I liked in my village, I moved to Surat. I became a skilled worker in one year and went to my [hometown] for marriage. I am earning INR 20,000 [$270] per month and living with my wife and two-and-a-half-year-old daughter in a rented house in Katargam.”

Jayesh Dabhi, 32, from Chogath village in Bhavnagar, has been employed in the diamond industry for the last 14 years. Like many others, he moved out of his village at a young age in search of a job in the Surat diamond sector. His father had outstanding debts of INR 100,000, and as the eldest son, Dabhi had to answer the call to try his luck in Surat so he could pay his father’s creditors.

“I had no other option,” he recalls. “I remember working for 14 hours in the [diamond] unit to repay the farm debt of my father. I worked hard, ate less during the day to save money, slept in a 10-by-10-foot room with six other workers. All this I did for repaying the debt. Today, I live in a rented apartment with my wife and two children; I cleared the debt and also renovated my ancestral house in the village.” These and other hard-working Saurashtrian karigars are a major reason Surat is standing tall today as a multibillion-dollar diamond center.

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - September 2021. To subscribe click here.

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