Despite its population of over a million individuals spanning 9 tehsils and 1033 villages according to the 2011 census, the Ministry of Panchayati Raj listed Panna among the 250 most underdeveloped districts in India.
Panna ranks a dismal 41st out of 45 districts in Madhya Pradesh’s human development index (HDI). It is also among its five poorest districts, receiving funding from the Backward Regions Grant Fund Programme (BRGF), which allocates funds to districts facing significant obstacles to progress.
The stark discrepancy between Panna’s diamond-rich reputation and its actual state of affairs suggests a flawed narrative of development that demands scrutiny.
The rampant practice of stone mining has led to the employment of a large number of undernourished tribal workers in 106 mines.
Forgotten Victims Of Silicosis
However, the consequences of this employment are dire as many of the workers contract silicosis, a fatal lung disease caused by inhaling dust containing crystalline silica, and die a slow and painful death. Unfortunately, the situation is compounded by a lack of data, diagnostic facilities, making compensation an uphill battle for the affected.
Despite previous interventions by the Indian Supreme Court and National Human Rights Commission, the systemic breakdown of healthcare and legal systems in India is evident in the plight of silicosis patients in Pann, where the villagers only know the disease as patthar wali (of the stone) or saans wali (of the breath).
Health check-ups are conducted by the government for pre-identified silicosis patients at the District Tuberculosis Center in Panna under the National Tuberculosis Elimination Program.
In accordance with the State Strategic Plan for TB Elimination in Madhya Pradesh, effective for the years 2019 through 2025, individuals afflicted with silicosis are to be excluded from active TB disease.
Despite the MP government’s claim that the Silicosis program is operational in eight districts, the NHRC has condemned it for failing to establish a silicosis rehabilitation policy. 881 out of 1,132 patients still await rehabilitation.
According to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) government doctors were either not diagnosing the disease or providing incorrect diagnoses.
Raja Gond, from Bamhaur village in Panna, states that ‘there is no medical infrastructure in Panna to test or treat silicosis. Doctors in the area have instead diagnosed several patients with tuberculosis. The lack of resources and medical attention has led to preventable deaths in the community.’
The Story of Pushpa
Pushpa Luniya, a widow from Tikuriya Mohalla in Panna, lost her husband Shyamu to silicosis in 2016, as government doctors misdiagnosed his condition as tuberculosis.
‘When he was alive, we did not receive any compensation,’ Pushpa laments. ‘And now that he is gone, how can we expect to receive any?’
‘How are we expected to contend with these government officials who refuse to acknowledge our pleas?’Pushpa questions.
Malnutrition and Clean Water Scarcity
The 250 residents of the Chandmari Basti in Panna rely on three main sources of water for their daily chores, an old hand pump, a community well situated amidst a cemetery about 500 metres away and a small pond.
In 2021, three children lost their lives within a week, and 12 others became severely ill, putting the spotlight on the issue of water scarcity and contamination in the region.
Following the reported deaths, The Public Health Engineering Department (PHED) officials collected water samples from an old hand pump and a communal well, which were found to be contaminated with harmful bacteria and pollutants.
Sunita Devi who witnessed children suffering in her village claims that, ‘government officials blamed fever instead of acknowledging the poisonous water.’
Moreover, malnutrition and anaemia among the women and children in Panna, owing to water scarcity, remains a grave concern.
Rampant Diamond Mining
The quest to unearth a precious diamond from the mines of Panna has ensnared the lives and livelihoods of many.
Despite the district being home to some of the world’s most celebrated diamond mines, a significant portion of mining activity is conducted illicitly, resulting in substantial losses to the state coffers and severe ecological harm to the region.
Regrettably, the majority of diamonds discovered in Panna nowadays hail from nearly a thousand allegedly illegal mines.
In the heart of the Majhgawan diamond mine and Panna tiger reserve, we find ourselves in the company of five labourers, each of whom keeps their face covered.
‘In the area, illegal mines are referred to as ‘number 2’ mines, but an exact count is difficult to ascertain,’ says one.
‘However, we can say with certainty that there are more illegal mines than legal ones,’ he adds.
The fact the very spot they are currently sitting is an alleged illegal mine they will have to flee, to avoid arrest, is not lost on them.
‘We risk our lives every day, but we have no choice’ says another mine worker when asked why they continue to work in the dangerous and illegal diamond mines. ‘There are no factories around here, and other jobs pay barely 100 rupees per day. We have families to feed and must earn a living somehow. Mining is the only way we can earn at least 300 rupees a day,’ another worker adds.
As they converse, they clean stones in a pit using a wooden casket and water. They caution that if caught by officials, they could be fined anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 rupees. Yet, another labourer declares that there is nothing here except the jungle and diamonds are their only hope.
Flouting of the Rules
A 70-square-kilometre area in Panna district comprises the world-renowned diamond mines’ official site, with two locales, Majhgawan and Hinauta kimberlite pipes, serving as the district’s primary and legal sources of diamonds.
On official records, there are two licensed diamond mines in Panna district and 101 stone quarries.
In reality, however, there are more than 700 illegal mines in the district and 500 stone quarries operational. While licences were issued for 1,339 shallow mines, over 3,000 illegal mines currently operate, mining about 16,000 carats of diamonds.
Majority of diamonds are sold illegally or smuggled out of Panna to polishing units in Mumbai and Surat.
‘Despite the fact that diamond miners are supposed to deposit their finds with the district’s diamond office, the process is so complicated and time-consuming that many prefer to sell their stones on the black market,’ says one miner.
India produced 38,437 carats of diamonds in the year 2018-2019, 28,816 carats of diamonds in the year 2019-2020 and 13,917 carats of diamonds in the year 2020-2021 solely from Panna.
‘When a designated landowner uncovers a diamond, they must submit it to the diamond office, which subsequently conducts an auction. The government levies an 11.5% royalty fee and a percentage of income tax, with the remaining sum disbursed to the individual in whose name the land was allotted,’ says a diamond broker.
He adds ‘However, a considerable amount of diamond mining in Panna is conducted illegally, with fortune-seekers selling their bounty to middlemen/brokers like us who then transport the gems to traders in cities such as Surat, Mumbai, and Hyderabad.’
Operating on a contract or percentage basis, these illegal miners provide the land and protection necessary for excavation, circumventing regulations with pocketed officials.
Panna in Peril
Such practices have led to immense financial losses for the government and environmental degradation. Lack of political will, corruption, and a weak law enforcement mechanism have all contributed to the continued existence of illegal mining in the region.
While buyers are undoubtedly aware of the source of their goods, downstream end-consumers may not be.
Labourers in the unorganised mining sector receive meagre pay of no more than INR 15,000 for a stone worth INR 2 lakh.
Illegal mining currently accounts for 80 percent of mining in Panna.
Akansha Deshmukh is an independent investigative journalist covering serious crime, cyberspace, terrorism and political corruption.
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