Praveenshankar Pandya, A Life Extraordinary

Praveenshankar Pandya possesses a lethal combination of skills, business acumen, and a strategic mindset. He also knows the fine art of balancing life between work and home. A Chartered Accountant by qualification, he needed a gentle nudge from his father to join their generational family business in gems and jewellery. Not only did he and his brother take their parent company – Shankar Group of Industries – to great heights, Pandya’s passion for the development and growth of the gems and jewellery sector steered him to take up many pro-industry initiatives. Among the most notable achievements under his stewardship as Chairman of GJEPC (he served two terms), were hosting the Mines to Market conference, enabling abolition of licencing system for import of rough diamonds, getting permission to start the Diamond Dollar Account, and facilitating free import of gold to make business easy for the trade. He also authored “Vision Document 2022” on the Indian gems and jewellery industry for Prime Minister Shri. Narendra Modi.
Solitaire International had a free-wheeling chat with the recipient of the IGJA Lifetime Achievement Award 2021, to learn more about his life and times.

Praveenshankar Pandya’s persona is calm, and his speech is thought-through. With his measured but has a warm demeanour, he commands instant respect.

His list of accomplishments is just as impressive. During his time at GJEPC, he was also closely involved in the setting up of the Indian Institute of Gems and Jewellery (IIGJ), Mumbai, Mani Kanchan SEZ, Kolkata, and the Gem & Jewellery National Relief Foundation (GJNRF), of which he was the Chairman from 1998 to 2005. He continues to be on the board of directors of GJNRF. Pandya was the Founder Chairman of Diamond India Ltd. (DIL), a company formed by 60 leading diamantaires. Currently, he is the Chairman of the Board of Governors of Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ranchi. He is also a trustee of the Friends of Tribal Society, a leading organisation set up for the education of tribal children.

Despite maintaining a punishing schedule, Pandya confesses that he manages to juggle various responsibilities. He begins his day early. Up at 4 in the morning, he enjoys his ‘me time’ and that’s when he gets most of his ideas. Later, after an hour-long morning walk, followed by a session of yoga, he heads to work.

Pandya was an ace tennis player and an aficionado of classical music – he has learnt the Sarod for over three years! But he confesses that his hobbies took a back seat once he began working for the industry.

Humble and approachable, Pandya believes that one should never have a preconceived solution to any problem. “One must listen to all views, review it, and then reach a decision. This has always been my approach,” he reveals. “Of course, this requires a lot of patience and humility, but it is the only way to be inclusive.”

How does it feel to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award? He smiled and said, “Initially, I was wondering what have I done to deserve this top award? But then, it is also an overwhelming feeling, and with all humility I accept the award.”

Could you give us a perspective of how the industry has changed from the time you joined business in 1973 till now?

I was hesitant to join the family business, which catered mainly to royalty. My father was able to convince my brother and me that once you become entrepreneurs you can also generate employment. That made me rethink and I joined the business. The natural thing was to progress into overseas markets. So, my brother established himself in New York and I settled in India.

Our family had expertise in rubies, emeralds, jewellery – everything. When our export businesses started, segregation became a necessity. Although we were more famous for colour gemstones, we opted for diamond manufacturing. Interestingly, my grandmother’s side were the direct descendants of jewellers who discovered the Panna mines. As a result, we had a lot of royalty as clients.

Coming to the time when I joined, the industry was not ready to take jumps the way the demand was picking up simply because diamonds were being cut in Israel and European countries. However, due to limitations of cutting cheaper goods and expensive labour, India began processing the smalls, and gradually we started perfecting the art of cutting and processing. Our goods were far cheaper than goods processed elsewhere. The two communities Palanpuri Jains and Kathiawadis took upon themselves to source rough and market polished goods. These two communities have brought the industry to its present state, and India is today the leader among the world markets in almost every respect. The Indian business kept scaling up from one milestone to another.

During your two terms as GJEPC Chairman you enabled the implementation of several industry policies. How was the journey?

When we began our export business, I realised that we were fighting a daily battle. Those days we could not import rough, and we had to buy it only through MMTC. Since MMTC didn’t know how to check rough, we exporters would go abroad and purchase the diamonds, seal the parcels, which would be come to MMTC and then get delivered to us.

In the mid 70s, the licencing system came into force. So, against exports, we started getting import licence. There, too, 80% of licence was free, allowing us to import goods of our choice, but the government still gave 20% of licences through MMTC.

With each successive year, the industry was generating good value addition on polished rough and the government realised that the sector was also generating more employment. Gradually, we also started increasing our market share. In the early 90s, we became the leading manufacturers and exporters of lighter weight diamonds. That’s when the world got attracted to us and started looking at our abilities and our weaknesses.

India was accused of running sweatshops and employing child labour. This was the period I was in the Council, and I realised that we are up against a formidable issue. So, we hired an agency to conduct a survey, which showed that 3.7% child labour was engaged in the sector, not directly but in ancillary services.

We immediately held a road show along with De Beers in Surat for an awareness programme against child labour. The accusations stopped, yet we undertook another survey to recheck if our efforts were successful or not. The survey results showed that the incidence of child labour had dropped to 1%.

So, when did India reach the renaissance period in the diamond sector?

The radical transformation of Surat began in 2001 when our Shri Modi became the then Chief Minister of Gujarat. With superior infrastructure, changes occurred in the industry. Traditional wheels were replaced by modern machines, and factories were spruced up. By the late ’90s, we were remarkably better than our peers in the Western countries. Our diamond factories became a role model for the world.

I also feel that the entire Indian industry must be thankful to De Beers for handholding us. Their teams would visit every two or three months, and have extended hours of communication with diamantaires, which exposed our manufacturers to the world markets.

Indian manufacturers started opening offices in different markets, expanding horizontally. Diamond jewellery became more accessible to all, especially in the USA. I must also acknowledge the role of Argyle Diamonds and Rio Tinto, who methodically went about from factory to factory in villages to teach them how to cut complex diamonds.

During the liberalisation, we moved the government to abolish the licencing system. Import duties on diamonds were reduced. The entire business opened up for importing rough diamonds; advanced payments were allowed; goods could be sent on consignment; and a host of other policies allowed for ease of doing business.

As for jewellery, before 1990, during the Gold Control Act, Indians could not hold any primary gold as it was a criminal offence. Italy and Paris were the hubs for jewellery manufacturing; but they were saturated markets and there was a need for cheaper manufacturing centres. Unfortunately, India could not at that point of time pick up pace.

So, China took it on themselves, and they became a big jewellery manufacturing centre with the support of Hong Kong, which was already doing a bit of jewellery manufacturing for the Americas. Bangkok was also into jewellery manufacturing, and thus, India came a distant fourth.

With deliberations and follow ups with the Government, we started SEEPZ, where gold jewellery was allowed to be manufactured and exported. Due to our eminent position in diamonds, we could quickly scale up our jewellery, and today, we are among the top three.

Do you think that there is more scope for jewellery exports to grow?

Even though India is recognised as a serious jewellery manufacturer today, there is a lot of ground to be covered.

We have scaled the highest peak in terms of diamonds, but in jewellery we have yet to reach the pinnacle. In coloured stones, too, we are number one in some segments, but in rubies we are not anywhere close to being on top. In gold jewellery export, China is much ahead of us.

We are world leaders, and in terms of quality we are not yet there. With so much of advanced technology at our disposal and our skilled artisans, we should have been trendsetters and set a benchmark by now.

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