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Indian Villagers Walk on Diamonds,
but Stay Poor

MYRA MACDONALD / Reuters 9mar03

PALI KHAN, IndiaŚMangaldas lives in a wooden hut, sheltered by a plastic sheet, and lights fires at night to keep away the igers. But he feels like a king.

"We lead a lavish life here. We sleep on diamonds. We walk on diamonds," he says. Mangaldas is a watchman, guarding what some hope may be one of the world's biggest diamond deposits, buried under thickly forested wild terrain in the remote interior of central India.

Map of Orissa, India

Kalahandi region in Orissa (in India) is infamous for its hunger and starvation. While the poor stay hungry and are increasingly being marginalised, the Orissa government has announced that a primary source of diamonds has been located in the heart of the hunger belt -- in the drought-hit Naupada district in the Kalahandi region of western Orissa.

Global giants like De Beers, Rio Tinto and Amil Mining have already shown keen interest in carrying out reconnaissance operation for diamond.

Already diamonds have been located in the tribal belt of Chhatisgarh State in central India. The moving Reuters report below brings out the stark paradox -- poor villagers walk on diamonds, while the outsiders make money. Why is it that the diamond industry is not asked to provide royalty to these poor people who inhabit these villages? Why is it that the poor are not the beneficiaries of the natural resources that they are born with?

AgBioIndia brings you this shocking tale of exploitation. It is time the civil society exerts pressure on the people who matter to force the companies to pay a royalty of at least 20 per cent of the estimated value of the diamonds that are dug out from their lands. After all, if the private seed industry can claim royalty under TRIPs for the seed they produce, what is wrong in giving royalty to those who control these resources in the first place.

Devinder Sharma / The AgBioIndia Bulletin 17mar03

Just past his hut, and beyond the small watering hole where a tiger left a pugmark when it drank earlier in the day, the path leads up to a numbered stone marking the presence of kimberlite, the seam in which diamonds are embedded.

According to the government in the central state of Chhattisgarh, the diamond mines here could turn out to be among the top 22 in the world. "Chhattisgarh is nestling atop the world's largest kimberlite area," it says.

The government has brought in international companies to survey the area -- though in what is a very secretive business it declined to give out the names of those involved. The diamonds first appeared at least a decade ago, washed out of the soil by the monsoon rains and collected by local people for sale into an illegal trade. Now the government is trying to create some order and has already fenced off many areas.

But politics, bureaucracy and a wariness about allowing foreigners to exploit India's mineral wealth means that progress is slow -- creating a bizarre contrast between rural people living a life of poverty above an abundance of mineral wealth. This is virgin terrain, populated by tribal villagers whose lifestyle has barely changed since Rudyard Kipling used the neighbouring region as inspiration for The Jungle Book.

In the village of Pali Khan, the people have little idea of how their lives may change, but are impatient to enjoy the wealth of the diamonds. Barnuram, a wizened old man with a walking stick, says he found a diamond in his field about 10 years ago. "My son was preparing the soil for planting and he happened to see a stone and he picked it up. He said to me, "this looks like a different kind of stone. What shall we do with it?"

So Barnuram took it to a village nearby where he says a shopkeeper took one look at it and without hesitating exchanged it for 3,000 rupees ($63) and five kilograms (11 lbs) of rice. "He fed me, gave me tea and kept the stone. I had no idea what the actual value of that stone was," he says.

Since then, 2.2 acres (0.9 hectare) of his land have been fenced off and soil samples taken. He says he is still waiting for compensation. "I am hoping companies will come here and dig for diamonds. That will help us to become rich, because until now we don't have enough to eat," Barnuram says.

And does he believe that the companies will give him the money from the diamonds? "Why will they not give it to me? It's my field," he says. There is almost an air of tragedy about his innocent optimism in a village which is far from the modern world, far even from the nearest tarred road.

To the outside eye, this village -- with its blue-and-white houses and patchwork of rice fields, nestling in a clearing in the vast silent forest -- seems too idyllic to spoil by churning up the land in search of diamonds. At one end of the village the women are preparing a bride for her wedding, rubbing turmeric into her skin, and covering her face with a veil made of dried palm leaves.

At the other, the men gather and talk about diamonds, surrounded by staring children. They say they are fed up with going hungry when there is so much wealth beneath their feet.

"We are sitting on a very rich land. We have diamonds. But right now we are solely dependent on rain to feed our children," Dansing Nidam says. "We want the government to start leasing it out as soon as possible so that the money comes back to the village," he says.

They are oblivious to the transformation which diamond mining has brought in other places, particularly in Africa, where peasants have often abandoned their fields altogether so that even food eventually has to be flown in from outside.

Diamonds have fuelled some of Africa's wars -- as an easily smuggled currency for rebel movements or as another reason to fight over land. But the villagers here dream only of buying more land with the money from the diamonds and of an end to going hungry in the years when the rains are bad and their rice crops poor.

"We are fed up of drought and depending on agriculture for our living," said Maduram Singh. "I believe the money will come to us, because when mining begins, who else will come here to work? We will start working straight away," he adds.

As we drive away, the men's faces are bleak with disappointment. They had first thought we were from the government and coming to speed up the process of digging up their land.

The AgBioIndia bulletins are an effort by the Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security to bridge the yawning gap in our understanding of the politics of food. We believe these bulletins will create wider awareness and understanding of the compexities of the crisis facing Indian agriculture and food security. We will keep you posted on the intricacies and games being enacted in the name of eradicating hunger. It is a non-commercial educational service for non-profit organisations and individuals. Subscribers are welcome to contribute information. You can view previous issues at http://www.agbioindia.org/archive.asp

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