Rating Steel, Rating India


By B G Verghese

It is good to learn that the long-stalled, stop-go, 12m tonne POSCO Steel plant sponsored by the South Korean steel giant in Odisha may be just about taking off. Forest rights, environmental and other clearances and issues of land acquisition and compensation dogged the project for the best part of a decade with a determined environmental group marshalling affected communities to oppose any advance.

Compromises have now reportedly been made and 1500 acres of land are under transfer. Phase-I may be limited to an 8 m tonne capacity plant that would reduce the private land required from 800 acres to under a third of that figure, correspondingly reducing the number of displaced families to a third as well. Iron ore exports are to be avoided, something announced by Pohang Steel earlier following adoption of a new technology. A planned captive port is also to be abandoned in the interest of coastal protection. Instead, nearby Paradip is to be developed to offer POSCO a dedicated berth.

Despite periodic clearances, the most recent last year, there were further obstacles. Time is money and there is a high multiplier loss in delay, with impatient youth seeking jobs. Hopefully, there will be no more interruptions. Meanwhile, the equally long-blockaded Tata Kalinganagar steel project, also in Odisha, has moved forward. Almost 85-90 per cent of the affected families have been resettled in new locations and the plant is now expected to go on stream in 2014. Two other Tata plants in Chattisgarh and Karnataka have also begun to show movement.

These are positive indictors, but the industry too now needs to show its mettle. The systematic green rating of major industry in India – pulp and paper, automobiles, chloro-alkali and cement – undertaken by the Centre for Science and Environment since the mid-1990s has been an educative experience. The trend line in performance was steadily upwards, indicating a growing green consciousness, with the cement industry approximating world standards. That positive trend has now been negated by the poor performance of the large and fast-growing steel sector – from 20m to 75 m tonnes and now aiming for 320 m tonnes by 2030. The steel ratings just disclosed, show the best units attaining no more than 40 per cent of global standards, with hallowed producers and PSUs like SAIL exhibiting performances well below par and lacking transparency in permitting honest, independent assessment. The numerous little coal-based sponge iron plants are the worst emitters.

The two year CSE study, assisted by an expert panel, entailed independent monitoring of various parameters, on-site visits, tests and interviews. Rating on a scale of 10 gave no producer more than 40 per cent. Given an over four-time capacity expansion to match expected growth trends by 2030 in an increasingly industrialising and urbanising country, future performance will need to equal or exceed global ratings with regard to energy efficiency and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, lower water consumption, greater recycling and reuse of solid waste like slag, lower land use to below 200 ha per million tonne capacity, improved occupational health and safety performance, and dialogue and engagement with local stakeholders. Altogether, superior land and resource management, higher production efficiencies and better human relations will be necessary to ensure sustainability and avoid socio-economic breakdown.

These are not impossible targets and will call for better and more competent regulation and monitoring. The local people, the state and corporate India will need to act together to achieve these and similar industrial goals. They are essentially on the same side. For the same reason, a viable coal policy needs to be fashioned so that the power crisis does not overwhelm us all.

It is in this context that the agitation over a highway and social development programmes in the Saranda forest in Odisha, to wean away tribals from Maoist inducements, must be viewed. The criticism is that a highway will open up this virgin forest tract to mining. It probably will; but mining need not necessarily hurt tribal interests. On the contrary, sensibly implemented, mining and industry may actually assist tribal development. There has to be a paradigm shift in thinking. It is patently wrong to assume that tribal people want to remain in a state of social neglect and backwardness. Given half a chance, they will move forward with the rest but at their own pace and in accordance with their own priorities. Huge cultural arrogance lies concealed in pious cries that the tribal people should be left alone while “we” agitate for advancement.

It is in this wider social context that we must see the current battle joined between Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar. The Bihar CM has said his JD(U) would rather quit partnering the NDA than have a communal face like Modi projected as the BJP and hence NDA’s designated prime minster in 2014. The blood of 2002 in Gujarat cannot be washed away by smart public relations and boasts about Modi’s administrative drive. Hitler too boasted administrative drive. Beautiful autobahns were built and the trains ran on time – both meritorious no doubt but not enough by far. Despite Nanavati’s never-ending endeavour to complete his unfinished symphony, parallel investigations ordered by the Supreme Court have Modi desperately worried that the awful Truth may well out.

India cannot be chained to the past if it is to grow and lead. The bitter feuding in the Sangh Parivar about leadership is in fact an ideological struggle about what kind of India is projected: an inclusive, modern country or an exclusive, hierarchical society rooted in the past. There are modernisers in the BJP who realise that an exclusive party may muster Hindutva or “Hindu” votes but will lose India. But dinosaurs abound. The Congress too, despite a secular tradition, has got locked in petty vote-bank politics with its communal roots.

Negative social forces have seldom been confronted. Thus a current Tata Institute of Social Sciences study bears out the charge of communal policing and arrests in Maharashtra. This is widespread, elsewhere too. Compromises are being made with so-called religious leaders to “save” the Ganga. If dogma leads policy, a nation is in trouble. A moderate BJD leader has been chastised for advocating non-Hindu entry into the Jagannath Temple in Puri so that the Lord’s blessing be denied to none. A noble, integrative doctrine but hardly denigrative of faith! Indira Gandhi was kept out of this very temple as she had married a Parsi.

If Hindu social reform is necessary, so is the case with Islam where medieval theology still holds sway against more modern, liberal tendencies. Witness the attitude towards women and “blasphemy”. Christian fundamentalism too is seeing a revival in many parts of the world to nobody’s good. The genius of India has been the very antithesis of such bigotry. Let none lower India’s civilizational rating on that count.



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