Darshanbhai Rameshbhai Chaudhary, a diamond polisher by profession, had not had a job for four months. Day after day, he would stand at the diamond polishing hub in the Varacha area of Surat in the hope of being hired again. When the lockdown was announced in March this year, Darshan, like many other workers, lost hope of earning a livelihood ever again. He allegedly died by suicide in May.
Darshan, a 20-year-old, had come to Surat from the Saurashtra region of Gujarat. Like many others, he hoped for a job as income from agriculture was not enough to sustain his family in his village.
A few days after Darshan ended his life, Bhupendrasinh Dhatmendrasinh, a 20-year-old youth, allegedly died by suicide in Surat before he could return home after the lockdown.
In June, 43-year-old Bharatbhai Sarvaiya, a resident of Bhavnagar, hung himself at his residence in Surat. Sarvaiya had been working as a diamond polisher in Surat for fifteen years until he was fired from his job about a year and a half ago.
“All he knew was polishing diamonds; he did not know any other work. Every day since he lost his job, he would go out and search for employment but in vain. After the lockdown his search for a job stopped,” Nimishaben, his wife said.
After Sarvaiya lost his job, his wife worked two jobs a day but could only make Rs 10,000 a month. After her husband’s death, Nimishaben had to take care of a family of four and pay back a loan of about Rs 3lakh that the family had taken to sustain itself.
In July, 26-year-old diamond polisher Irshad Jamadar died by suicide in Surat after struggling to arrange money for his wife’s delivery which was due that month.
Since the lockdown due to COVID-19 was imposed in March, the subsequent shutting down of all polishing and cutting units drove 16 diamond workers to suicide.
“The diamond industry in Surat has been hit by recession for over two years now. There is no job security any more. Even before pandemic hit the state, many small polishing units had shut down and medium or big units had scaled down the number of employees. However, unemployed workers would still stay back in Surat in hope of getting back their job someday. They had no option. Most of the workers in diamond polishing units come from villages in Saurashtra where agriculture doesn’t feed an entire family any more,” Ramesh Zilariya, the president of the Diamond Workers Union, told NewsClick.
“As the diamond industry shut down, it left the workers with no option but to go home without any money. Most of the workers received a partial salary or no salary for the month of May before being unemployed for four months,” he added.
In late July, 70 workers from Shree Shakti Diamond Factory in Varachha, Surat, submitted an application to Ratnakalakar Vikas Sangh, a local body of diamond artisans, after they had not been paid for over two months, including for a month before the lockdown.
In their application, they wrote: “The workers have not been paid for two months and five days. The owner’s mobile phone is switched off and his home is locked.”
Notably, in September, Jaysukh Gajera, president of Surat Diamond Polishers Union died by suicide after struggling with a financial crisis for months.
The diamond industry in Surat has already incurred a lost of about Rs 30,000 crore due to the nationwide lockdown, according to the Gem and Jewellery Export Promotion Council (GJEPC), a body that represents diamond exporters across the country.
“The industry will inevitably incur more losses in the days to come due to the global recession,” said Dinesh Nevadia, the regional Chairman of the GJEPC.
“Surat’s diamond industry does not look like it will recover anytime soon. Diamonds are luxury items. The situation will not improve until there is a recovery in the global economy which is currently staring at an imminent crisis,” said Babubhai Vidiya, Secretary of the Surat Diamond Association.
Surat’s diamond industry is one of the largest diamond polishing, cutting and processing centres in the world, employing more than six lakh workers who primarily hail from Saurashtra, and migrant workers from Odisha, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Out of about 4,500 small, medium and big units in Surat, around 90% are small, unorganised and often unregistered. It is these small units that employ nearly half the total work force and cuts, polishes most of the diamonds that are sent to Mumbai and then exported to the US, Hong Kong and China.
By the end of June this year, as diamond units were about to open after a lockdown of two months, 700 workers tested positive for COVID-19, leading to an industry closure yet again.
Subsequently, in August, the Surat Municipal Corporation issued a notice allowing diamond units to remain functional. However, only 50% to 60% staff members were allowed with social distancing guidelines in place. The civic body also made it mandatory for diamond unit owners to get their workers tested for COVID-19.
However, the small units remained shut as they could not afford the cost of testing for all the workers who had returned from their villages in Saurashtra.
“A considerable number of workers are yet to return due to the fear of COVID-19. However, the pandemic has also brought a new set of problems for those who are coming back. Now that the Surat Municipal Corporation has given its nod, big units are opening up. The small units have either not opened or are functioning without any guidelines in place as they operate from crammed, small spaces where social distancing isn’t possible,” said Zilariya.
“Surat’s diamond industry employs more than six lakh workers. As of now there is a vacancy for about two to three lakh workers. At least three lakhs workers are left unemployed,” adds Zilriya.
“Even if one manages to get employed, we are being paid almost half of what we used to get. A worker who used to get Rs 400 a day is now earning between Rs 200 and Rs 250 a day,” said a diamond polisher from Surat.