The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Plastic sheet above head, diamonds under feet

Pali Khan, March 9 (Reuters): Mangaldas lives in a wooden hut, sheltered by a plastic sheet, and lights fires at night to keep away the tigers. 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.

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 Chhattisgarh government, the diamond mines here could turn out to be among the top 22 in the world. It says: “Chhattisgarh is nestling atop the world’s largest kimberlite area”.

The state has brought in international companies to survey the area. But it declined to give out the names of those involved in what is a secretive business.

The diamonds first appeared at least a decade ago, washed out of the soil by the monsoon rain and collected by local people for sale into an illegal trade.

Now the state 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 of rural poverty above an abundance of mineral wealth.

This is virgin terrain, populated by tribal villagers. In Pali Khan village, 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 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 Rs 3,000 and 5 kg 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 of his land have been fenced off and soil samples taken. Barnuram 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 we don’t have enough to eat,” he 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 that 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 for 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 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 (the land) out as soon as possible so that the money comes back to the village,” he says.

They are oblivious to the transformation that diamond mining has brought in other places, particularly in Africa, where peasants have often abandoned their fields 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 of Pali Khan dream only of buying more land with the money from the diamonds and of an end to going hungry in the years when rains are bad and 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.”

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.

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