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The diamond merchants who lost their lives

By Vaihayasi P Daniel in Mumbai
Last updated on: July 15, 2006 09:21 IST
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Mumbai's vigorous diamond district --- where the money that changes hands daily contributes sizeably to India's Rs 75 billion ($1.66 billion) annual diamond trade -- spreads across just two or three kilometres and encompasses a few buildings as well as the narrow, crowded lanes that meander around the old Opera House in south Mumbai.

The diamond industry's key players have plush offices in the expansive, but rather unelegant Panchratna building, the headquarters of the trade, situated right opposite the Western Railway line or at the adjoining Prasad Chambers and Swastik Cinema. Floor after floor of offices, some 1,000 or so, each barricaded with grilled, double-locked heavy doors and guarded by a private watchman are located here.

India's largest diamond exporters -- like Kiah that belongs to Sheetal Diamonds or Aura belonging to Rosy Blue Group -- showcase their stones at stores not far from this neighbourhood.

On Tuesday, July 11, eleven diamond brokers, according to Navinchandra Mehta, president of the Mumbai Diamond Merchants Association, died in the serial train blasts. News agencies cite 15. An estimated 50 to 60 people were injured. Casualty lists hang at the entrance to the Panchratna building.

But none of these folk were the hotshot diamond merchants who bring loads of prosperity to Panchratna building. Most of them didn't have MDMA membership cards -- that cost in the region of Rs 25,000-- to enter the building nor did they own offices in this locality.

Freelance brokers -- like the 15 who tragically perished on 7/11 -- are the foot-soldiers of the trade. If they own passes (MDMA has 12,000 members), they then have a right to enter the three jam-packed diamond halls located in Panchratna. They arrive by 10.30 am at Opera House and spend the whole day trading stones at the halls till the light dies on them and diamonds can no longer be scrutinised.

Others, without passes, do their trade right on the street. Hundreds of freelance brokers, carrying nothing but white-paper-wrapped packets of diamonds and an eye glass stand in the driveway running up to Panchratna cutting deals till dayend in the shadow of Roxy Cinema where Krrish is presently playing.

Says Bharat N Radia, secretary to the Mumbai Diamond Merchants Association, "They probably earn Rs 8,000 to Rs 12,000 a month. They often carry their diamonds tucked in packets even when they travel on the train.

Their income does not afford them the fancy flats in Malabar Hill here so many successful diamond merchants live. Most of them -- and there are anywhere from 25,000 to 100,000 of them at Opera House on a given day -- live in very modest homes from Goregaon, northwest Mumbai, and Virar, a satellite township of Mumbai, and commute on the local train into Mumbai every day. Some of them share flats and leave their families back in Gujarat.

Work finishes at about 6 pm and they climb onto trains headed to the suburbs from Charni Road station and that was how 15 of them became casualties on Tuesday.

Life stopped for about an hour in this busy district on Friday, July 14, as about 2,000 -- mostly Gujarati-speaking -- diamond brokers congregated in one of the diamond halls at Pancharatna for a shok sabha or condolence meeting for their 15 lost colleagues. Top merchants chaired the meeting.

Said Mukesh Shah, secretary of the association in Gujarati, "We have to help these families who have either lost a putra (son) or a pati (husband) or a pita (father)." The Association promised Rs 100,000 to each member's family. The Gem and Jewellery Export Promotion Council also offered Rs 100,000 to families of the deceased and Rs 50,000 to the injured.

Most speeches focused on the fact that the blast showed up their industry's vulnerability and how the need of the hour was to tighten security in the Opera House area. Praveen Shankar Pandya of theĀ Gem and Jewellery Export Promotion Council said, "We know the kind of security diamond merchants work under abroad. Till now we have been very casual about our security imagining that we live in some Ram rajya (reign of paradise). But this will have to change to secure jaan and maal (life and goods)." An agency called Matrix, that handles Reliance Industries security has been called in to look at the diamond trade's requirements, he said.

Jeweller Bharat Shah, one of the industry's most high profile but controversial merchants, also made a speech calling for unity.

Chandrakant D Gandhi of Sunraj, sitting next to this reporter looked at the photographs of the deceased brokers and said sadly, "They all used to come up to my office for work. Very reliable people."

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