Mine-swept out of the game

M Ramesh | Updated on January 20, 2018
Lost glory: A replica of the ‘Koh-i-Noor’, the most renowned of all diamonds. Photo: A M Faruqui

Lost glory: A replica of the ‘Koh-i-Noor’, the most renowned of all diamonds. Photo: A M Faruqui   -  The Hindu

Silence of the Cicadas; M Ramesh; Fiction; Notion Press; ₹355

Silence of the Cicadas; M Ramesh; Fiction; Notion Press; ₹355

India’s last functioning diamond mine faces closure next week. Where did it all go wrong for a country that was once the only supplier of diamonds?

On June 29, Lesedi la Rona, the second biggest diamond ever discovered, will go under the hammer at the auctioneer Sotheby’s. A day later, India — the first diamond miner and the world’s only supplier until the 18th century — will see the closure of its only diamond mine in production today. Supreme Court’s orders!

And so, it is a happening week for diamond enthusiasts in India. I was not one, would never have been one, given my inveterate dislike for jewels, but I slowly got sucked into the world of sparkling stones when I was researching for my novel, Silence of the Cicadas, which has something to do with diamonds.

My research threw up several carats of information. For centuries, India was the only place where diamonds were discovered. Till Alexander the Great came to India, no one outside the subcontinent knew of diamonds. The Greek took home some stones and introduced the vajra to the world. It is, therefore, a cruel irony that India’s only diamond mine today, Panna, should be closed just a day after the stunning Lesedi la Rona would make headlines the world over. The 1,109-carat diamond, as big as a tennis ball, is second in size only to the 3,106-carat Cullinan Diamond, which was discovered in 1905 in South Africa. (A carat is a fifth of a gram.) A Canadian company called Lucara Diamond Corporation had, at its Karowe mine in Botswana, discovered the diamond in November 2015. Next week, Lucara will be richer by at least $80 million (₹550 crore). Only in May, the company sold an 813-carat biggie discovered from the same mine six months previously. That stone, dubbed ‘The Constellation’, fetched $63 million.

As machines eject such fortunes, and with the ‘return-the-Koh-i-Noor’ controversy still fresh in mind, the question is, what happened to all those great diamond mines of India? India has produced some of the most famous diamonds in the world — none as big as the Cullinan or the Lesedi La Rona — but famous nevertheless, each with a story of its own. The 105-carat Koh-i-Noor, a legend and an object of loot, larceny and deception, is perhaps the most famous. There are few takers for the Indian government’s recent declaration that the stone was a gift to the British East India Company by Majaraja Ranjit Singh, who ruled Punjab in early 19th century. Many instead prefer to believe the story that the English duped the Maharaja’s minor son into signing away the diamond to the Crown.

The Koh-i-Noor (which some believe is the ‘Kaustubha Mani’ referred to in the Mahabharata) may be the best-known Indian stone, but there have been many others — the story of each of them is the stuff of novels. For instance, the 410-carat Regent Diamond was discovered by a slave, who was then murdered for it by a ship captain, who later hanged himself in remorse.

It touches the lives of Napoleon and a man called Pitts, whose grandson gave Pittsburg its name. There are several others — the Hope Diamond, the Florentine, the Princie, Idol’s Eye, Dresden Green, Briolette of India, the Nur-ul-Ain and so on. These stones were mined from Golconda, Kollur, Chennur, Kurnool and Panna mines. Several of these diamonds are ‘type IIa’, of exceptional transparency, just like the Lesedi La Rona.

Have all these mines been milked dry? Not at all, says Dr TM Babu, a renowned exploration geologist and author of Glorious Indian Diamonds. There is still huge potential, he says, pointing out that when the Indian government opened up mining to the private sector in 1995, there was a huge interest among global companies to look for diamonds in India.

Most of them have since given up, disheartened by the slow progress in securing approvals. It is a big pain, says Babu. First you have to get a Reconnaisance Permit, a Prospecting Licence and then a Mining Lease, in that order, each of which takes years.

Australian mining major Rio Tinto discovered eight diamondiferous pipes near Bunder, in the Chattarpur district of Madhya Pradesh, in 2004. Its first crowbar is yet to hit the ground. Unfortunately, the 1,000 hectares it needs for mining falls in an environmentally-sensitive zone between the Panna Tiger Reserve and the Navardeli Wildlife Sanctuary. Rio Tinto says there are 34 million carats, worth ₹20,500 crore, of diamonds to be taken out, but the project would mean chopping off some five lakh trees. No way, say the environmentalists.

The government-owned National Mineral Development Corporation’s Panna mines are to be closed for environmental reasons, though the company believes there is still a lot of rich pickings there.

And so, till some new, environment-friendly mining technique is developed, the space that India ceded to southern Africa shall remain ceded. Africa got lucky in the late 19th century — in 1866, a boy named Erasmus Jacobs found a diamond on the banks of the Orange river. Within a few years, the region yielded more diamonds than India had in the previous 2,000 years.

It is a different story, though, that Africa’s tryst with diamonds has been smeared with blood, a fictionalised account of which can be found in Wilbur Smith’s Men of Men. The point whether the stones have brought prosperity to Africa is moot. But today, it is Africa and not India that is the diamond supplier to the world. So when a Lesedi La Rona or a Constellation goes under the auctioneer’s hammer, all Indians can do is to reminisce about the glorious diamond age gone past.

M Ramesh is the author of the novel Silence of the Cicadas, released earlier this month

Published on June 24, 2016

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