A GEM of a story | Sunday Observer

A GEM of a story

Water being pumped out of pit
Water being pumped out of pit

Abandoned houses and neglected tea bushes dot the landscape of Paradise Estate. The houses stand ghost-like, uninhabited, except for a few tools and spare clothes of the workers hung to dry on a line inside.

The residents are long gone. They left when gems were found and many exchanged tea, for a shot at finding a gem. Today, if you want to find gems, more often than not, it is likely you would end up in Paradise. For those who ended up in the pits however, Paradise is yet to come.

“I have been working in the pits for the past 25 years, two years ago, I got promoted as the manager,” said W.A.D. Ariyapala (55), a father of two, as he watched his workers bring out yet another bag of soil to the surface from one of the gem pits at the end of Paradise road.

Eight gem miners or farmers as they are now referred to, work for him and they have for the last two years been digging a 160 ft pit in search of gems,

“We haven’t found any big stones here yet”, he said, but the gem pit owner or ‘Mudalali’ has not decided to abandon the pit as yet. He has three other similar pits down the road.

As they worked under the watchful eye of a CCTV camera, Ariyapala said, the owner was good to them and paid each worker a salary of Rs 20,000 for the month, regardless of whether they found stones or not, and also covered all their meals. They camp out in a shed nearby so that they can start work early and finish late every day.

“It was 7 pm when those working inside the pit had lunch yesterday. When you go down there, you cannot come up until all the logs are set up properly and reinforced. Otherwise, when you go down the next day, the water would have washed away all your excavation work and the pit might collapse”, said Samantha Liyanage (35) who has been working in the gem pits since he was 15 years.

Despite the hard work, Liyanage said, he was not looking to switch careers, “Our houses were built from the money we earned here. You never know what you would find. One time, I found a gem valued at Rs 10.2 million, they gave me Rs 1 million for that”, he said, as he pushed aside worries that he has not made a similar fortune in the last two years.

It is not known when gems were first found in Ratnapura, but the city has always been the hub of the gem trade.

‘City of Gems’

According to the former Chairman of the National Gem and Jewellery Authority and current UPFA Leader of the House of the Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council, Asoka Jayawardena, the ‘illam’ which is a layer of coarse pebble like material with some clay and fine sand where gems are concentrated, is evenly spread around Ratnapura,

“There is a possibility to find gems anywhere here. Despite various studies, we cannot say gems are found only in one particular place”, he said, and explained that at times people have used traditional mining methods to get to them while others had resorted to more modern backhoe methods when gems keep running out and are hard to find.

The National Gem and Jewellery Authority (NGJA) was originally started at the State Gem Corporation in 1971 for ‘development, regulation and control’ of the gem industry in the country. Technically, all stones belong to the state, and to mine them, one needs to apply for a permit. It is thus the responsibility of the NGJA to ensure that its workers flourish along with its merchants.

“Many of the chairmen who come here, are either from a political background or they only know the export side of the trade. They are only interested in cutting the stones and exporting them, in order to earn foreign exchange. It is not right because the gems are produced by, the ‘farmer’, the owners of the land on which they find gem deposits and by those who have taken permits to dig for them. Sufficient attention is not paid towards these people. To export more, first,we need to produce more. All facilities need to be given to these people to do that”, said Jayawardena.

The ‘Hawula’

Jayawardena explained, when it is decided to dig a pit on a particular land for excavation, the person who takes the permit can either be the owner of the land or not. If not, the owner would lease out his land to the permit holder for a certain fee- usually for a period of three years.

“When the person starts excavating, he does it with a group or ‘hawula,’ and if eight people work, it is one hawula. Then, the group which brings the timber, is another ‘hawula’, while another group which brings the machinery to pump water out and wash the stones is the ‘machine hawula’.

When they find the gem, they split the income in half- one half for the group which spent for it and the other half for the group which worked on it.

Usually, 8-12 people work in a pit. The system of payment is- machine people 1/10th; permit holder 1/10th; owner of the land 1/5th; and the rest split into two- i.e. 3/5th of the remaining income being split into two between those who spent money and the workers.

Depending on the gem stone, the worker can get several lakhs of rupees through a single sale. They split on the value of the first auction”, said Jayawardena

“This system is very fair”, he added.

The only issue however, is that many do not sell in an open auction and the owner of the pit ‘fixes’ the prices of the gems. He also arranges it in such a way that even the merchants in town would offer the same price for the stone and thus the workers more or less sell it to their gem pit owner and trust him to give a fair share to them. With the advent of salaried workers in pits, the workers do not receive a share of the gem unless the owner agrees to give an extra incentive for the find.

Jayawardena’s ‘system’ also no longer works with the arrival of large scale miners. Today, there are two groups of people in the pit: the owners and the workers.

More often than not, the owner has purchased the whole land on which the pit stands, he brings his own machinery, logs and other resources and hires his workers.

When backhoes were introduced in the recent past to dig pits, the number of workers too drastically fell. The gems found in these pits went straight to Colombo.

The use of backhoes have also caused severe harm to the environment in Paradise Estate, while its use has been banned on and off since 2011. President Sirisena in his capacity as Minister of Environment, has cancelled all backhoe mining licences.

Depends on luck
W.K. Kularatne (42) from Angammana is the main contractor or ‘baas’ at the pit owned by his brother, located close to Ratnapura town.   
For the past five years they have been excavating on the land and have obtained permits for two pits, each 75 ft deep. His family has also bought the land and house surrounding the pit, in a residential area. His neighbours too are miners, in an area where most residents have moved out, allowing the miners to do their job.   
“I have been working in this industry for the past 15 years and found thousands of gems. In one instance, I found a gem which was auctioned for over Rs 10 million”, said Kularatna who has 10 people working for him.   
“We knew that some had found gems on this land, so my brother bought the whole area”, he said, as he sat waiting for the pump to empty the water from the pit. The pumps had been working since 7 am, and at 11am, he complained they still had not emptied the pit.   
“We would only have 4-5 hours of work now”, he complained.   
He asserted they were very fair with the workers and if one found a gem, they would go as a group to the merchant in town to get a fair price,   
“We don’t fix the system. We know how it is offered and we share the profits equally”, he said.   
It has however been over two months since they found a gem of any value.   
“The last gem we sold was for Rs 100,000 and I got Rs 3,000 after they split the share for the workers, among the nine of us”, said Mahesh Priyankara (26) who had joined the pit soon after he completed his O/L exams.   
He, along with the rest of the workers, receive Rs 600 per week, on days they find no gems. Kularatna is quick to add that his family covers their meal requirements and they stay together in a hut next to the pit, so most of their expenses are covered.   
 “I am only used to this line of work, I have no other skill”, said Priyankara when asked why he worked with such uncertainty.   
He is not alone, in the city of gems, most young men are drawn to the mines. Its promise of quick riches though not often, attracts them to the pits.   
Asela Hemantha Kumara (38), being a bachelor, allows him to spend long days at the pit, without the worry of maintaining a family. Most of the men in his pit are yet to choose to settle down,   
“There have been times that I earned Rs 3-4 lakhs and months when nothing was found. It all depends on luck. I do this because it is what I am used to, and have done throughout my life”, he said.   
Market value 
Earning a sum of Rs 400,000 for example is a point to brag about at the pits, where the earnings of many are hardly comparable to what gem merchants at the top of Paradise road earn through the export of the same gemstone.   
Last year, Ratnapura gems were back in the spotlight for being the site for discovering the world’s largest blue star sapphire.   
Experts from the Gemmological Institute of Colombo, certified the gem to weigh a record 1,404.49 carats (nearly 10 ounces) and the international market gave it a price tag between $100 million- $175 million, if put up for auction.   
Very little of this money however, is seen by local merchants or mine workers in Ratnapura.   
“A few on the ground know the market value of the gems they find”, said Jayawardena.   
The government, in the meantime, receives only a paltry sum through its tax of 2.5 percent plus NBT at the first open gem auction, if there is one, and a tax of 0.5 percent at the time of export.   
“After the 70s, the gem industry was liberalized and not much tax charged from traders, since the government wants them to trade”, said Director, Land Mining and Environment, National Gem and Jewellery Authority, G.W. Amarasiri, commenting on the poor revenue collection from gems.   
He explained that while the majority of gems were not sold at an open auction, in 2009, they had allowed those who declared the sale, to be exempt from income tax. “Since then, many have come forward to sell gems at an open auction and they pay the tax”, said Amarasiri.   
In 2014, the NGJA issued 11,419 licences for mining and declared a profit before tax of Rs 314.942 million to Parliament, a remarkable turnaround since 2010, where it had declared a loss of 32.967 million before tax.   
Some of the income goes to the Gem Mining Welfare Fund and in 2014, the fund held Rs 27,365,928 in its account to be spent on worker compensation and other welfare activities.   
All those working in pits with permits can apply for compensation in the event of death or injury.   
Last month, two men working in one of Kularatna’s pits were killed when excavations from a neighbouring pit caused flooding in theirs.   
Kularatne said, the Authority had estimated that each death would be valued at Rs 50,000.   
“They said death gets a compensation of Rs 100,000 and since two died in the pit, they split the amount in half”, he said.   
Amarasiri however, denied such claims and insisted that all deaths were liable for compensation amounting to Rs 500,000 each.   
“We also give Rs 500,000 for a permanent disability. It is not true that we give less. For other accidents, we give Rs 100,000, a natural death inside a mine receives Rs 20,000 and other injuries Rs 20,000”, he explained while emphasizing that the pits in Sri Lanka was much safer compared to those around the world.   
We have on average 40-50,000 people working underground every day and the reported number of deaths are at a maximum of four, every year, with an average of 2-3, explained Amarasiri.   
The NJGA, he said conducted regular workshops and awareness campaigns on safety within pits but many of the incidents were due to negligence, “Either they don’t test for toxic gases before they go in or some similar issue”, said the Director and added, “It is rarely that a pit collapses on a miner”.   
The NJGA also offers 200 lifetime scholarships for miners’ children, from Grades 6-12 and they hope to increase the number to 400 in the next two years, but Amarasiri observed that they did not conduct any program to make the miners themselves aware of the value of gems in the market.   
No small fish here
With little knowledge of the market, most of the pricing is controlled by gem merchants, small and big. Over the past few years however, since the advent of backhoe mining, the game has just been for the bigger players in the industry,   
“We thank the President for putting a stop to backhoe mining but the gem industry which could have gone on for another 100 years was ruined because of that. Most of the gems here have been mined”, said a small scale gem merchant in Ratnapura who wished to be unnamed.   
“The time where someone with a bit of money could buy a gem and where traditional gem merchants could survive by a few purchases is gone. Today, only the rich merchants can survive”, he said.   
In the pits however, hope keeps the miners going, “There is always some work to do. There was a time that I earned Rs 1,38,000 through a gem find. It can happen anytime”, said Pradeep Kumara (37) as he went back to work in Paradise.