India: Diamond Capital of the World

‘An unparalleled parallel system.’ That’s how Vish Puri refers to the informal courier service that transports most of the world’s diamonds back and forth between Bombay and Surat, capital of the world’s cutting and polishing industry. 

Known as ‘Angadias’, the diamond couriers blend in with the general population, travelling on trains, coaches and by road – small packets of stones secreted in their clothing or possessions.

The whole thing is straight out of Kim.

Here’s how it works: after they’re mined, most of the world’s diamonds are transported to Gujarat where they’re sorted, graded, cut and polished in thousands of different factories and sweatshops (more on this below). Once they’re ready to be sent to Bombay (from where they’re re-exported to the world markets), the diamonds are handed over to an Angadia agent. The agent agrees to insure the ‘parcels’ for the amount declared by the sender. In other words, if the courier is robbed, loses the diamonds or makes off with them, the agent agrees to compensate the sender. The Angadia agent receives a fee and a receipt is provided – a kachhi chithhi. The agent then assigns one of his couriers (more often than not an old man) with the task of carrying the diamonds to Bombay and delivering them to the appropriate address. He might sew the packet into the inside of his trousers.  Or perhaps hide the diamonds inside his pot of Brylcreem.  Who knows?

Incidentally, I’m told by Rafat Nayeem Quadri, the enterprising local journalist who showed me around Surat, that the word Angadia is derived from Angi, a kind of vest with a pocket sewn into the back, which is worn by the Bharwad tribal people.

The diamond cutting and polishing industry is far less secretive.

I visited a couple of factories (more like sweatshops) in Surat’s Varachha Road area where hundreds of pedi workers laboured at machines – cutting, polishing, grading.  The Gujaratis have cornered almost the entire global diamond cutting and polishing industry (worth roughly $8-9 billion per year).

One thing that struck me as extraordinary is the total lack of any security at the entrances to the factories. I visited several and there wasn’t a guard in sight.  I was told that nearly all those employed in the industry come from the same district in Gujarat – Saurashtra on the Arabian Sea.  One of the owners I interviewed laughed at the idea that he could be robbed: ‘Outsiders are easy to spot,’ he said.  He added: ‘A thief wouldn’t get far.’

The vast majority of the diamonds passing through Surat are legitimate.  But it’s believed that most of Africa’s Blood (or Conflict) Diamonds also find their way to India via the Middle East. Just recently, two alleged smugglers were arrested in Surat by the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence. The two men stand accused of bringing a consignment of 48,663 carats into the country (source: Times of India).

The news magazine Tehelka has done a good piece on the Indian connection.

Incidentally, Blood Diamond smuggling and the Angadia courier system feature in Vish Puri 3, The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken.

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