With not many tigers left in the Panna wildlife sanctuary, diamond smuggling has caught the fancy of one-time poachers.
Thousands of tribals in Panna dream of making a killing like Solomon Vandy, the character played by Djimon Hounsou in Blood Diamond. In the movie, Vandy smuggles a diamond out of a South African pit and sells it to become a millionaire.
But the pursuit of this dream has led to a cycle of exploitation. “Neither do the tribals know the value of the diamonds nor to they have the resources to sell them in markets like Mumbai. A stone they sell to diamond merchants for Rs 15,000 fetches lakhs in Mumbai,” said Alamgir (name changed), a conduit for unauthorised sale of diamonds, who earns a 10 per cent cut on every deal.
A finished stone with a carat’s value fetches close to Rs 3 lakh in Mumbai, said J.S. Solanki, Panna’s district diamond officer.
Solanki said Panna’s diamonds are sought after globally. But the tribals toil through the year to find one stone. “Every pebble is cleaned using bare hands. The fortunate few find more than two diamonds a year,” said wildlife conservationist Arun Singh.
Every diamond found in and around the Panna sanctuary should ideally be deposited with the district diamond office that auctions it to merchants twice or thrice a year. But only 10 per cent of these are actually deposited. “It is not possible for over a dozen constables to check over 1,000 mining pits,” says Singh.
Solanki admits to illegal trading of diamonds but says the amount traded is minuscule since Panna doesn’t have too many diamonds left.
Once known as the mining capital of India, the Supreme Court had banned extraction of stones in 2006 inside the reserve after conservationists said mining was disturbing wildlife, including tigers. But the apex court reversed its order on August 23 this year reasoning that the revenue can be used for the sanctuary’s conservation efforts.
Solanki says diamond smuggling was more rampant when mining was allowed in the core area that has many more diamonds than areas outside. Before mining was banned, the National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC) found over 10,000 diamonds in a year compared to just 152 this year from areas where mining wasn’t banned.
With the ban lifted, when mines in the core area reopen next year, Singh expects illegal mining to also increase manifold.
Said Panna Tiger Reserve director LK Chaudhary: “We have asked NMDC to deposit Rs 69 crore to start mining. As soon as they deposit the money, as per Supreme Court directions, mining permission would be given.”