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Moral Minefield

Written By krishna on Tuesday, November 08, 2011 | 7:28 AM

Has Tata Steel, one of India’s oldest and most admired corporates, diverged from the ethical path laid down by its founding fathers?
Published : November 2011


I N 2007, EXACTLY A CENTURY after the company was founded with almost defiant Indian pride during British rule, Tata Steel took over the Anglo-Dutch steel manufacturer Corus. In his book, The Romance of Tata Steel, published later that year, the most prolific chronicler of the House of Tata, RM Lala, described the felicitous timing of the takeover:

The hand of history has woven the tapestry of the Tatas. Just over a hundred years ago, Jamsetji Tata requested the Secretary of State, Lord George Hamilton, for the co-operation of the British Raj in starting India’s first steel works. On the hundredth anniversary of the registration of Tata Iron & Steel Company, the company won the bid to purchase the Anglo-Dutch steel giant CORUS. And so the wheel has turned a full circle.

The multi-billion dollar deal was signed after months of fierce competition between Tata and a rival bidder, the Brazilian steelmaker Companhia Siderúrgica Nacional (CSN)—and the outcome did suggest a certain good fortune for the Tatas. At a final auction held in London on 30 January 2007, Tata raised its offer in the ninth and last round of bidding to 608 pence per share—narrowly edging out CSN’s final price of 603 pence. The takeover—an all-cash deal—cost Tata Steel $12.1 billion, almost double the $7.6 billion it had first offered for Corus in October 2006.

The acquisition vaulted Tata Steel into the top ranks of world steel firms: already India’s largest steel manufacturer, it became the world’s fifth-largest, and the first Tata company to be named a Fortune 500 multinational corporation. Symbolically, the deal was heralded as a demonstration of India’s rising economic might, and an auspicious arrival for Indian business on the global stage.

In a strictly historical sense, the acquisition marked a major triumph for Tata Steel, which had persisted “against great odds”, in the words of RM Lala: it had dodged fierce strikes by disgruntled union workers in the 1920s; subsisted through decades of artificially low steel prices set by the Indian government after Independence; seen off threats of nationalisation during the reign of Indira Gandhi; upgraded an obsolete plant that was desperately in need of modernisation; and fought back from what its directors described as the brink of extinction in the early 1990s.

But to say that Tata Steel, now a global steel powerhouse, had left all its problems in the past would be an understatement. For the firm’s great triumph at the Corus auction in London came almost a year after one of its lowest moments: a violent incident that took place in Kalinganagar, Orissa, which may have marked the company’s greatest moral failure in its 100-year history. It found no mention in The Romance of Tata Steel.

O N THE MORNING OF 2 JANUARY 2006, Mukta Bankira awoke, as always, at the crack of dawn to begin sweeping her brown and blue-painted mud house. Framed by a low bamboo fence, the house is tucked away in Kalinganagar—a small town in the iron ore-rich Jajpur district of Orissa, about 100 km from the capital at Bhubaneswar, which has
become one of the state’s new industrial hubs. Its undulating landscape is bifurcated between smoke-coughing factories and pastoral tribal villages flanked by low-lying, forested hills. A 40-year-old widow, Bankira, who belongs to the Ho tribe that is predominant in the region, lost her husband to a fatal fever many years ago. Like everyone else in her village, Chandia, she eked out a subsistence living and fed her four children by growing vegetables, grains and lentils on the agricultural lands nearby and rearing poultry and livestock for milk and meat. Her son Ranjit, a tall and lean 20-year-old, described Bankira as “the kind of mother who went hungry herself but made sure her children never did”.

Tensions had been high in Kalinganagar all winter long. More than a decade earlier, the Orissa state government had acquired more than 10,000 acres of land for an industrial complex, and in turn apportioned that land to companies like Tata Steel, which had purchased an allotment of 2,400 acres to set up an integrated steel plant capable of producing six million tonnes per year. In 2005, the unresolved dispute between displaced residents and the state over compensation and rehabilitation had become especially heated. The state had acquired the land from some of the villagers for 37,200 per acre, and resold it to Tata for approximately 337,000 per acre—still well below the market price, which by 2006 was estimated at more than 500,000 per acre. (Villagers who did not have the record of rights for the land in their possession had it taken without compensation.) According to news reports, the state earned a profit of roughly 7.5 billion, while Tata saved 870 million by purchasing the land at below market rates.

By this time, building the steel plant at Kalinganagar had become one of Tata Steel’s highest priorities, alongside its efforts to upgrade capacity at its original plant in Jamshedpur, Jharkhand. But roadblocks still lay ahead: villagers who felt they had been undercompensated (or denied compensation) for their land continued to contest the deal, and many of those displaced from their homes or livelihoods were yet to be resettled or compensated. A long-standing local resistance movement had turned up the heat against any further land acquisition or development, based on the government’s previous failures to deliver fair compensation. “Kalinganagar was a turning point in anti-displacement struggles,” said Sudhir Patnaik, a journalist based in Bhubaneswar who publishes an Oriya fortnightly magazine, Samadrusti. “They said a complete no to displacement with the slogan: money cannot compare to the lands we have.”

On the morning of 2 January, news had travelled like wildfire through Bankira’s village and the surrounding area that Tata Steel had begun to use bulldozers to level land and build a boundary wall so that work could commence on the steel plant. The land, while legally under the possession of Tata Steel, was still subject to compensation disputes from affected villagers. Bankira ran out of her house, heading toward the contested field, almost a kilometre away: when she arrived, a contingent of some 300 armed police, deployed to guard the bulldozers, were facing a swelling crowd of several hundred angry tribal men and women, some of them carrying bows and arrows.

There are conflicting accounts about what provoked the police to fire at the assembled crowd, but when it was all over, 12 tribal men and women and one policeman were dead, and another 37 tribals injured. Local human rights activists have alleged that not all of the dead perished in the skirmish, and that up to six, including Mukta Bankira, were taken into police custody and killed—an allegation that gathered momentum among the locals when some of the bodies returned to families for cremation were found to be missing their hands. Bankira’s son Ranjit said that his mother’s body in particular had been badly mutilated. “She had a bullet wound on her neck below the right ear,” said Ranjit, averting eye contact throughout his recounting of events. “Both her hands had been chopped off. Both her breasts had been sliced off and she had knife marks on her forehead. I feel bad that Tata Steel took my mother away.”

The anger in the local community deepened the following week, when large advertisements for Tata Steel appeared in the local newspapers. “The people felt humiliated by this,” Sudhir Patnaik said. The chief minister of Orissa declined to visit the village to pay his regards; the only politician who came to see the victims’ families was the Congress party president, Sonia Gandhi. “She spoke in English,” Ranjit told me. “I didn’t understand what she said.” When I asked him about Ratan Tata, the chairman of Tata Group and Tata Steel, he responded with a vacant look. “I don’t know who he is,” Ranjit said.

Ranjit Bankira is now 20 years old and married. He works as a peon in a local government school, earning 7,000 per month. He quit studying after seventh standard. “I had dreamed of doing big things once but now I have to take care of my younger siblings,” he said. Last year, he alleges, Tata Steel took five acres of the family’s land, for which he has received no compensation. “If you don’t get technically displaced by leaving your house and belongings, then there is no payment,” he said. After Bankira’s death, the family received 1 million in compensation from the state and central government, which remains secured in a bank account for his siblings’ higher studies and future use.

In an interview with the environmental activist and journalist Nityanand Jayaraman six months after the shootings, HM Nerurkar, Tata Steel’s current managing director, and the former in-charge for Kalinganagar, candidly acknowledged that local people “did not like that government was profiting” from the taking of land, and “have not got a good deal”—but also explained that by mid-2005, Tata Steel had decided “we can’t keep on waiting indefinitely” to begin construction. In late 2005, Nerurkar said, the Tata Steel Rural Development Society (TSRDS)—an NGO affiliated with the company—set up a medical camp to reach out to the locals, but it was burned down after two days. That the construction work on the boundary wall began just a few months later would seem to indicate that Tata Steel was well aware of the intensity of local sentiment against land acquisition and development, but proceeded in spite of this opposition. (Nerurkar’s office declined my request for an interview, citing his busy schedule, and did not respond to questions submitted by email.)

The deaths in Kalinganagar brought a share of unwelcome publicity to Tata Steel, but it was quickly dispelled by the euphoria over the Corus acquisition a year later. What was more serious, though, was the tarnish—however slight—that had begun to appear on the reputation of a company that had for decades been regarded as India’s gold standard for corporate ethics and responsibility.


J AMSETJI NUSSERWANJI TATA, the Parsi founding patriarch of the Tata empire—often called the “father of Indian industry”—regarded the establishment of an Indian steel mill as a patriotic endeavour, in line with the nationalist fervour that swept the land as the 19th century neared its end. Tata believed steel could be a symbol of India’s modernisation,
and was convinced that an indigenous industry would usher in national prosperity and reverse the pattern of exploitation under British rule, when raw materials were taken from India to manufacture goods in England, whose sale—including back in India—generated considerable profits. According to several accounts of his life, Tata had drawn his inspiration from a lecture given by the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle, which he had attended during a visit to Manchester in the 1860s. “The nation which gains control of iron,” Carlyle said, “soon acquires control of gold.”

Jamsetji did not live to see his audacious dream of setting up an Indian-owned steel plant in British India become a reality; that task was left to his son, Dorabji, and his cousin, RD Tata. Three years after Jamsetji’s death in 1904, the Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO) was registered; five years later, the first ingot of steel rolled out of its plant at Jamshedpur. On his death bed in Germany, Tata had told Dorabji and RD Tata, “If you cannot make it greater, at least preserve it. Do not let things slide. Go on doing my work and increasing it, but if you cannot, do not lose what we have already done.”

More than half a century before any notion of corporate social responsibility came into being, Tata had set forth a vision that was far broader and all encompassing in scope and spirit. “In a free enterprise, the community is not just another stakeholder, but is in fact the very purpose of its existence,” he had said. It was a vision that came closest to the Gandhian concept of “trusteeship”—the idea that those who own or come upon wealth should act as its mere trustees for the greater good of society.

Over the course of the 20th century, Tata Steel—the flagship firm of the House of Tata—became synonymous with Indian industrialisation, ethical capitalism and social philanthropy. The company introduced fair labour practices long before they were enshrined in Indian law or, in some cases, even before they had been adopted in the West. Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy (JRD) Tata, the son of RD Tata who became chairman in 1938 and ran the Tata Group for half a century, was credited with having infused Tata Steel with a “people first” approach that produced a competitive edge—generating high productivity from a loyal workforce, which allowed it to produce good quality steel at low costs for many decades. All the leading business figures of the Tata family set personal examples as philanthropists by bequeathing large portions of their personal wealth to trusts.

But on closer scrutiny, the acquisition of Corus and the Kalinganagar firing episode represented two sides of the same coin—the culmination of two distinct but mutually reinforcing developments whose interrelation had largely gone unnoticed. The first was a dramatic transformation of the global steel industry, resulting in a highly predatory and competitive sector, whose new mantra might as well have been “acquire or get acquired”. The second, directly connected to the first, was an aggressive drive towards “mechanisation, consolidation and expansion”—which increasingly set steel companies, especially in the developing world, on a collision course with mounting resistance from local communities, whose way of life and even survival was often at stake.

Until the early 1990s, the steel industry was highly fragmented and dominated by small and medium firms. That changed with the arrival of Lakshmi Mittal, a Marwari businessman of modest beginnings whose voracious appetite for steel and big takeovers led him to change the global rules of the game. In a 1998 speech to industry leaders in New York, Mittal spelled out a new vision for consolidation and globalisation that he hoped would “flatten out the ruinous cycles of boom and bust”, according to Cold Steel, an inside account of Mittal’s historic 2006 takeover of the European steel giant Arcelor. “This industry is made up of too many small regional players. It is still too highly nationalised,” Mittal continued. “For the long-term growth of the industry it has to change.”

For the next eight years, Mittal snapped up everything in his path on the way to becoming the world’s biggest steel producer, a position he cemented with the audacious hostile takeover of his closest rival, Arcelor. The newly formed ArcelorMittal was about three times the size of its nearest competitor, and the acquisition put immediate pressure on smaller firms—captured in the headline of an October 2006 New York Times article: ‘Steel Makers on the Prowl for Acquisitions Worldwide’. The Times quoted a report by industry analysts that said, “All producers today must be asking themselves, is our scale competitive?” But size wasn’t the only factor in the wave of global consolidation: steel makers in the West saw the acquisition of lower-cost producers in emerging markets as a way to cut their own expenses, while shareholders were demanding that firms expand to ride the wave of rising steel prices and healthy profits.

At the same time that the steel industry was consolidating itself globally, increasing mechanisation meant that steelmaking was far less labour-intensive. The old stereotype of a gargantuan workforce in steel plants and mines had become a thing of the past. The argument that mining would create jobs—reliably deployed by governments and corporations to override local or environmental opposition—no longer held, since the steel business was shedding jobs at a frantic pace: in the past 25 years, the global steel industry had reduced its workforce by more than 1.5 million workers. Producing a million tonnes of steel annually could now be done by only 1,000 people; the Korean giant POSCO, whose plans to build a massive plant in Orissa have been held up for five years, employs 10,000 people to produce 28 billion tonnes per year.

Indian steel companies were hardly immune to the pressures and temptations of this newly competitive environment. Mittal had publicly declared that he had no desire to acquire Tata Steel—but then again, he had invited Arcelor’s CEO for a friendly dinner at his palatial London home only days before launching his hostile takeover bid. A former senior officer at Tata Steel described to me a presentation given by Ratan Tata to top company executives around 2000, which included a slide plotting the contribution of each Tata company to “shareholder value”, with Tata Steel ranked at the bottom. “He basically said that the company is eroding shareholder value,” the senior officer said. “There was a genuine fear that Mittal could acquire.” (Tata’s office denied repeated email and phone requests for an interview, citing his busy schedule.)

Whether motivated by worries of acquisition or the opportunity for unprecedented profits, Indian firms determined to seize the moment increasingly began to cast aside human and environmental concerns in their pursuit of bigger plants and more mines. Conflict between mining and steel companies and local communities was escalating into deadly violence, and Tata Steel proved to be no exception to this trend.

The company’s head of communications, Sanjay Choudhary, had quickly dismissed the deaths at Kalinganagar as “a stray incident [that] should not derail a good thing”. But it was not a stray incident. In August 1997, two women were crushed to death during a protest rally against Tata Steel’s proposal to set up a steel plant in Gopalpur-on-Sea, a coastal town in Orissa. Three years later, the company was forced to abandon the project following protests from more than 20,000 local people. In 2000, three tribal youth were shot dead by police during a peaceful demonstration near a proposed Tata Steel bauxite mining site in Rayagada district, Orissa.

According to a Tata Steel filing with the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) in August 2007, at least 10 environmental cases were pending against the company, citing damages totalling nearly 300 million. Some of the most egregious alleged violations took place in Orissa, where the company has for decades operated one of the biggest mining operations in Sukinda Valley, home to more than 95 percent of India’s deposits of chromite ore—which is smelted into ferrochromium, a key ingredient in the production of stainless steel. A 2007 Right to Information (RTI) application revealed that untreated drainage water from Tata Steel mines in Sukinda contained 20 times the permitted level of the carcinogen hexavalent chromium, higher than that of any other mining company in the area.

Indian and international environmental groups, Greenpeace foremost among them, have directed harsh criticism at Tata Steel for its refusal to countenance appeals against the construction of a coastal port in Dhamra, Orissa, which lies threateningly close to one of the world’s biggest nestings of olive ridley turtles and the ecologically valued Bhitarkanika mangrove forest conservation area. In a letter to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2008, the principal chief conservator of forests in Orissa confirmed that the port work was going on in violation of the Forest Conservation Act of 1980.

None of the above should suggest or imply that Tata Steel is any worse than its peers in the steel or mining sectors; there are reasons to believe that it still holds itself to higher standards than other Indian corporates. But those firms do not enjoy its golden reputation, trumpeted in ad campaigns promoting “values stronger than steel”.


T ATA'S VAUNTED ETHICAL MANDATE first emerged over the course of two turbulent and challenging decades, the 1920s and 1930s. From the company’s viewpoint, Dorabji and RD Tata carried the mantle of responsibility to high standards. When the company teetered on the edge of insolvency in the early 1920s, Dorabji pledged his entire personal
fortune of 10 million, including his wife’s jewellery, to raise the 20 million required for a public limited company and to offer shares. RD Tata strongly resisted all attempts at nationalisation and successfully pleaded with shareholders to not push for dividends, even as profits were falling drastically in the 1920s with stiff competition from the dumping of foreign steel, mainly from England and Belgium.

Labour unrest began to trouble Tata Steel in 1920, when a flash strike took management by surprise; others followed throughout the decade. Though the official histories of the company trumpet its pioneering labour protections, like the early introduction of the eight-hour workday, scholars have disputed this rosy picture. “TISCO’s management viciously resisted any demands by workers to elect even their own leader, employing behind-the-scenes manoeuvres including the complicit help of nationalist leaders like Subhash Chandra Bose,” said the historian Dilip Simeon, whose book, The Politics of Labour Under Late Colonialism, issues a sharp challenge to the official narrative of harmonious labour relations at Tata Steel. “Up to 1924, the continuous process workers worked a 56-hour week (eight hours a day for seven days a week), with no weekly holiday, and could be made to do four hours compulsory overtime,” Simeon writes. “They got a day off in a fortnight only after 1924.”

By the time JRD Tata took the reigns of Tata Sons as chairman in 1938, the most violent labour disputes seemed to be in the past, and he is credited with ushering in a new and considerably more worker-friendly era at Tata Steel. Born in the same year that Jamsetji died, JRD was lionised in life and death as a national icon, captain of industry and father of Indian aviation.

SN Pandey, 86, is a portly Tata Steel veteran, who was dispatched by JRD himself to introduce labour reforms in the company’s coal mining operation in Jharia, in what was then southern Bihar. “The first thing he did was put a complete focus on worker welfare,” Pandey told me, as we sat in his simple and slightly cramped apartment in suburban Delhi. “Conditions there were no different to other collieries. But JRD corrected that by providing housing, drinking water supply, medical support, education and recreation.”

Pandey, who rose to become the company’s director of industrial relations, and later penned a book called Human Side of Tata Steel, explained that until the mid-1960s, the focus of such efforts was largely internal, until JRD gave a call to amend the company’s articles of association to reflect a responsibility to society beyond business, stakeholders and employees. A new department, community and social development, was created, which later merged with the rural development department. Culled from this merged department was Tata Steel’s Rural Development Society (TSRDS), now a registered NGO.

“The idea of TSRDS came from Russi Mody,” Pandey said. Mody, famously gregarious and much beloved by his employees, had begun his career at Tata Steel in 1939, rising to become the firm’s managing director in the early 1970s and its chairman for much of the 1980s. “Mody was a great humanist and JRD was the inspiration. There was a tempo during his time,” Pandey said. “The greatest thing that was achieved was securing the blind faith of the community, mostly adivasis and harijans.” With enthusiam, Pandey rattled off the things they tried to do—providing a hand pump, drinking water, community development centres where children could study, skills training to young unemployed boys in carpentry, blacksmith skills, motorcycle repair, car repair, truck repair, and in rural areas, teaching to tame a cow better, new methods of paddy production and creating small bunds for water logging. “The whole focus was to enable the unable to be able,” said Pandey. “We did not become the crutch.”

A CCORDING TO INTERVIEWS with former Tata Steel officers, things began to change in the early 1990s, around the time that India’s own brush with bankruptcy led to the dismantling of economic controls. Three decades of government controlled pricing had left it with “no reserves for replenishing its plant with machinery”, according to RM Lala. “Two
earlier attempts at modernisation had failed. The company had been operating on outdated furnaces from the 1920s. If the government gave a loan, it reserved the right to convert it into equity.”

In January 1991, the government lifted the price controls on steel; seven months later, Manmohan Singh delivered his famous speech outlining measures to liberalise the Indian economy. That same year, Ratan Tata, JRD’s nephew, took full control of Tata Group. In 1993, JRD passed away, and a controversial change of guard took place at Tata Steel, with the unceremonious ouster of Russi Mody and the arrival of JJ Irani as managing director.

As personalities go, the two men could not have been more different. Irani was a gold-medalist metallurgist who got a doctorate from the University of Sheffield when the town was synonymous with “steel”. Mody was a charismatic Parsi with only a bachelor’s degree but a Midas-like touch with people. If Mody gave Tata Steel an unprecedented social facelift, at least in the eyes of the public, Irani directed his energies to what many described as a long-overdue modernisation programme. Public accounts of Irani’s tenure have tended to emphasise the urgent imperative to modernise: in The Romance of Tata Steel, Lala quotes Irani telling JRD, “in desperation”: “If we do not renovate the plant totally, 10 years from now you and I will be standing outside the gates selling tickets to people to come and see the steel museum.”

SN Pandey disputes this neat narrative, however. “The modernisation programme was envisioned and executed as far back as 1974 by Mody and was well into its fourth phase when Irani took over,” he said. “Mody got technology from Japan, replaced the blast furnaces from the 1920s. There was also high production and productivity and the people were happy.” Irani, in Pandey’s account, was “a very hard taskmaster and very technical man who gave little preference to the human side of modernisation, ruthlessly cutting the workforce in half”.

Between the increasing pressures of global competition in the steel industry, the new opportunities for massive profit in post-liberalisation India and the changing priorities of the leadership—from Mody and JRD Tata to Irani and Ratan Tata—there seemed to be a distinct transformation in the very DNA of the company.

In RM Lala’s dramatic account, Irani “was leading a life and death struggle to save a company”, whose most dramatic consequence was a major reduction in the company’s permanent workforce—from 78,000 in 1993 to 38,000 in 2006. Over roughly the same period, however, profits soared: in 1993, still ostensibly on the brink of extinction, Tata Steel reported after-tax profits of 1.27 billion; by 2004, that figure was 17.46 billion. Spending on “social service”, meanwhile, failed to rise in line with record revenue; as a percentage of profits, it fell from 21 to four percent over the same period, according to The Romance of Tata Steel.

Pandey, who served as vice-president of human resources during the implementation of the “Early Separation Scheme”, which offered financially generous voluntary retirement packages to encourage workers to depart, expressed the company’s changing ethos: “Russi Mody had popularised an old Tata Steel slogan, ‘We also make steel,’” Pandey told me. “Dr Irani tore it down to we only make steel.”

The terms of the buyout scheme were indeed generous, but more than 25,000 people lost their jobs much earlier than they had planned. In the words of another senior officer at Tata Steel, who spent more than 30 years with the company, the downsizing marked the start of a significant change in the company’s ethos—no more ruthless, and arguably less so, than any other private firm, but somewhere far short of JRD’s “people first” approach. “People in Jamshedpur have nothing else to fall back on besides Tata Steel,” the senior officer told me, and were by and large unswayed by the company’s attempt “to convince people that it was better to retire and sit at home and work”. The buyout scheme was meant to be voluntary. “In reality, it was not so voluntary,” he said. “Many people were subtly forced, cajoled and even humiliated into taking it.” Several cases against Tata Steel were filed in the Supreme Court and Jharkhand High Court for alleged intimidation of employees to secure their resignations and illegal termination of workers, some of which are still pending, according to news reports.

In conjunction with the reduction of its workforce, Tata Steel abandoned another practice that once distinguished it as more than just another private company, and which is still ostensibly guaranteed under its bylaws: when an employee completed 25 years of service, Tata Steel registered one of that employee’s immediate family members for a job at the company on the basis of seniority; if an employee served for 40 consecutive years, the family member would be hired immediately. Irani brought this programme to an abrupt halt, presumably with the conviction that such guarantees had no place in a modernising private corporation, but it had devastating consequences for a generation of lower-income workers, whose offspring had declined other opportunities with the knowledge that a job at Tata Steel was forthcoming. (Irani, who recently retired from Tata Steel’s board of directors, did not respond to an interview request.)

SD Singh is among the estimated 12,000 Tata Steel workers who, on retirement, registered a family member expecting he or she would be duly employed. Slightly built and stiff in his movements, Singh, now 78, joined Tata Steel in 1962 in the chemical laboratory at a monthly income of 450. He retired in 1997 earning a monthly income of 17,000. As we sat in conversation at his two-bedroom house in a lower-middle income neighbourhood in Jamshedpur, Singh could not bring himself to say anything negative about his lifelong employer, even as he furnished evidence of his disappointment—several letters he wrote over many years addressed to Ratan Tata, requesting that his daughter’s case for employment be looked at “sympathetically”.

In Jamshedpur, I met a veritable army of aging men like Singh, each with their own tale of disappointment over promises unkept, and all of them wistful in their reverence for JRD Tata and Tata Steel. I met one such man, a carpenter who retired in 2007 after 35 years on the job, in a Jamshedpur hospital ward: his son, who had fallen into depression after the position for which he had been registered failed to materialise, had attempted suicide. SD Singh told me that his own 38-year-old daughter had been all but abandoned by her husband when it became clear that her “registered” job would not come through. Almost all of the men asked why the company had continued to have employees register their family members when they had no intention of providing jobs.

Many people, inside and outside of Tata Steel, believe that what Irani did was absolutely necessary. “That’s one way of looking at it,” the former senior Tata Steel officer told me. “The other way of looking at it is how much more business can you do to support the manpower. To increase profits, either you increase productivity or decrease costs. Tata Steel decided to look at costs and when it came to which costs, it looked at wage costs, to be precise.”


A T FIRST SIGHT, the quaint mining town of Noamundi, nestled against the Orissa border at the southern edge of Jharkhand, looks like it’s been sprinkled with fairy dust: particles of iron oxide tint the sky red, floating onto trees, roads, the rooftops of pastel-coloured huts and even the skin, hair, clothes, fields, food and water of those who live here.

The iron mines in Noamundi were first discovered by Tata Steel in 1917, and are estimated to contain some 200 million tonnes of iron ore, all of it a convenient three-hour train ride from the company’s steel plant in Jamshedpur. Legend has it that Tata Steel’s prospectors stumbled on Noamundi’s iron deposits almost by accident. Amazed to come across people with iron pickaxes, they inquired where they found the metal and were pointed in the direction of “Neya Mundi”, meaning “that hill” in the local Ho tribal language.

Today the iron ore business is booming in Noamundi, where convoys of open trucks ferry iron from mines of varying legality. But for decades, the fate of Noamundi was linked solely and inextricably with Tata Steel, starting with the first consignment of iron ore dispatched to Jamshedpur in 1925. Until the late 1960s, local men and women, mostly Ho, manually mined ore with “chisels and hammers” for Tata Steel, as a company brochure puts it. In 1967, the mines were fully mechanised, and by the following year Noamundi was supplying more than 90 percent of the 2.7 million tonnes of iron ore used at Jamshedpur.

A certain sense of lawlessness is palpable in Noamundi as soon as you step outside the small provincial train station. On the drive into town, I passed what appeared to be an endless line of trucks, parked back-to-back at the side of the red and dusty road; it’s been estimated that some 5,000 ply the roads every night, loaded with iron. We soon ran into a massive traffic jam; earlier that day, I learned, a truck driver speeding through town in spite of daytime “no entry” rules had run over a young tribal boy at a market, and angry locals had blocked the road to demand action against the driver. The boy was in critical condition, I was told, but local authorities still hadn’t arrived at the scene several hours later.

According to local police records, two or three people are killed each month by vehicles on Noamundi’s main road. Crime has also spiked in recent years: in 2010 there were 15 cases of murder. In 2008, an officer in the district government testified in front of a state task force that almost 170 iron ore crusher units in the area were processing thousands of tonnes of iron ore from illegal mines every week. By 2010, with air pollution worsening and attention to illegal mining increasing, the state government temporarily shut down the crushers and announced it wouldn’t renew licences. “There was a breathing problem,” said Shailash Sharma, a local police inspector. “Life was getting affected. Some illegal ones still operate.”

It would be all too simple to lay the unflattering legacy of a century of mining in Noamundi at the feet of Tata Steel, given the explosive and largely unregulated (and in many cases, outright illegal) expansion of mining activity in the past few decades.

But the red-tinted town is an excellent place to consider the consequences of the shifting corporate culture at Tata Steel, and the company’s uneasy position as a private firm whose earlier status and reputation was as something far more than a private firm. The ethical precepts of Jamsetji and JRD Tata, as we have already seen, were not always perfect in practice. But their notions of “trusteeship” eased the tension between Tata Steel’s dual identities: the state gave the company land and rights, but it strived to do something in return for the affected populations.

The land allotted to Tata Steel in Noamundi and Jamshedpur under the British Raj consisted mostly of tribal villages; since many of the tribals did not have land titles, they were displaced when the goverment handed over the property to Tata Steel for mining. For decades, the tribals found employment with Tata: until the early 1990s, the company’s mining operations in Noamundi and nearby Joda employed approximately 30,000 people. But the permanent workforce has been reduced to under 1,000, with an additional 1,500 or so contract labourers. When the downsizing began, tribal people were often among the first to go, because of their low literacy and skill levels. “The company said they will only keep technical, not unskilled people,” said Nizam Laghury, a straight-talking former president of Tata Steel’s Noamundi Worker’s Union, in his raspy voice. “But if they don’t have capability and you have not invested in their training, how will they compete with people from the outside?”

“When TISCO first arrived in Noamundi, the local people didn’t want to work for them,” said Ambika Das, a chirpy 28-year-old girl whose grandparents spent their lives manually mining iron for Tata Steel. Originally from a scheduled caste family, intermarriage and coexistence with the Ho people have made her manners, habits and way of life almost indistinguishable from theirs. “There were a lot of Kusum trees at that time, which used to have a lot of lac,” said Das, who grew up listening to stories about Tata Steel passed down the generations in her family. “It would sell for good money and goods in the market. TISCO would go door to door and nobody would come. Then, they started cutting Kusum trees and people were forced to come out and work.”

A Ho tribal, Laghury joined Tata Steel in 1977 as a labourer, picking up iron for 195 per month. When we met one evening at his compact two-bedroom quarters in the “TISCO camp”, he walked in looking like he had stepped straight out of a furnace. Traces of red iron dust had settled on his receding, white hairline. Large, black-rimmed glasses framed his swarthy, beaten face. Tall and medium-framed, he sank into a low sofa, pulled out a white handkerchief from his trouser pocket and wiped the sweat off his face. Hanging on the wall across from him was a framed photo of JN Tata with a quote inscribed below, which read: “In a free enterprise, the community is not just another stakeholder, but is in fact the very purpose of its existence.”

“I remember a time when even if it was belt cleaning, people had a permanent job,” Laghury told me. “The general repairs of houses and drains of the workers, the company used to do all this. It was all outsourced in 1998. Maybe the company was thinking a hundred years ahead, but it should not have outsourced jobs of a permanent nature.”

“TISCO didn’t do right by the tribal people,” Laghury continued. “They gave us jobs at one time in exchange for our lands. But most of the next generation was left high and dry. But today, Tata Steel is still standing strong and taking production from the same plant made on our land.”

“It used to be a better company,” Laghury concluded. “But now it is working with carte blanche.”

Before leaving, I asked Laghury about the photo of Jamsetji Tata hanging on his wall. “I still believe in JN Tata,” he said. “And JRD never gave any direction to make the local community unhappy.”

As the story of cutting the Kusum trees illustrates, it would be naive to presume that the happiness of the local community was the absolute highest priority for Tata Steel in Noamundi. But in a series of interviews with former employees who served in the town, it became clear that there had been significant efforts in an earlier era to offset the impact of mining on the environment and local communities—and that these endeavours had been sharply curtailed in recent years.

Sudhir Sinha was the head of Tata Steel’s affiliated NGO, the Tata Steel Rural Development Society (TSRDS), in Noamundi in the late 1990s. Originally from Bihar, Sinha had grown up playing with friends in the underground mica mines of Jhumri Telaiya, now in Jharkhand. “This is where I had my first brush with tribal people and saw the ‘nudity of poverty’ to the extent I’ve never seen,” Sinha told me during our first meeting at his office in Delhi. “Can you believe that people in this world can live just eating leaves? They would boil them, put some salt and eat them.”

Dressed in a navy blazer, burgundy shirt and blue jeans, Sinha has a calm and steady demeanour; he exudes a certain small-town humility and sincerity. After attending the Xavier Institute of Social Science in Ranchi—where he hid from his family the fact that he studied rural development rather than personnel management—he joined Tata Steel in 1984 because he was impressed with the community work he had seen in a block near Jamshedpur where his cousin worked. Within three months of joining, Sinha asked to be transferred to Hatibari, in Orissa, to get his hands dirty—and got more than he had bargained for. “I didn’t have any means of transport and so we would ride bicycles into villages and travel five to ten kilometres everyday.”

Sinha first helped build a road and then tried to get tribal women involved in planting nurseries. “Nowhere were they involved in the development process,” he said. A year later, after meeting the Chipko movement leader Sundarlal Bahuguna at a conference, Sinha began to mobilise the local population for a “save forest” campaign. In three years, he told me, an area of about 200 acres that had been deforested was re-greened.

“It took me fifteen years to understand why mining companies should do this,” said Sinha. “It’s not our idea. These [tribal] people are already close to nature but they just have to figure out how to strike the balance between their needs from nature and how to preserve it. Their livelihoods were dependent on forests but they were themselves concerned that the forest cover was depleting. They had rules in place, the concern and knowledge was there but they weren’t united. So, we tried to act as a catalyst.”

Many of the initiatives that Sinha started in Hatibari were eventually brought to Noamundi, where TSRDS launched a similar “save forest” campaign. According to another former Tata Steel officer, who spent a decade working in Noamundi from 1988 to 1998 and asked to remain anonymous, the tribal people were not always so disenchanted with Tata Steel. Until the early 1990s, he said, Noamundi was an inviting hill retreat with lush green sylvan beauty, nestled as it was in the dense Saranda Forest, filled with sal, jamun, mahua and mango trees. “In the early nineties, it was a how green is my valley sort of place,” the officer said. “If you took a satellite image, you would have found more greenery in an eight-mile radius around the Tata Steel plant than outside that area. The local population was not hostile. There was some balance achieved, some positive equilibrium between mining and the local community. The company was living in its small oasis of good practice even if it did not play its stewardship role—I would not say that the company was even then doing a lot of work for the rural people.” Asked about the present situation in Noamundi, he said that “whether they continue to remain an oasis of good practice is an open question.”

The former officer said that he had gone to work for Tata Steel precisely because he admired its positive image. “I was aware of the high ethical standards, and it was my job to work with the communities—no strings attached,” he said. “When an intelligence official once came and asked me for a bribe,” the former officer continued, “I told him that some companies do not pay bribes. This courage I did not get only from within or from my upbringing. It also came from the company.”

“During the time I was working there,” the former officer said, “definitely people had a lot of respect [for Tata Steel]; there was a good relationship, without hostility or animosity. For decades the company followed its principles, and you’ll see there was no hostility as such.”

While TSRDS remains the company’s main vehicle for community and rural development, particularly in its mining areas, the registered NGO has earned the ire and suspicion of many tribals in Noamundi, who over time have come to regard its initiatives as a sop to blunt their discontent—or, even worse, as a front to manipulate the community so that Tata Steel can obtain the necessary local clearances required to expand production capacity, renew leases, or give environmental certification to new projects.

“One well, one school there, one road here,” said 61-year-old Ladura Balmuchu, a Ho tribal who worked with Tata Steel in Noamundi for 40 years. “They haven’t done much else. It’s not very meaningful development. Inside the TISCO camp, there are hardly many tribal people.”

“Until even ten years ago, people were happier with TSRDS, but slowly they got disappointed,” said Geetu Reddy, the president of the Tata Steel Workers Union in Noamundi. “Now they get angry if its name even comes up.”


W HEN I CALLED SANJEEV PAUL, the head of Tata Steel’s corporate social responsibility division, to ask him about the company’s commitment to community development, he pointed with considerable pride to the city where Tata Steel was founded. “The whole of Jamshedpur is corporate social responsibility,” he said.

For decades, Jamshedpur has been held up as a shining example of urban planning in India, a model island amidst a sea of urban dysfunctionality. Located in the heart of Jharkhand on the Chotanagpur plateau, it has been ranked the seventh cleanest and richest city in India, according to government surveys. In a 2008 interview with Tehelka, Union Home Minister P Chidambaram cited Jamshedpur as a towering example of successful urbanisation, economic development and mining: “Today the quality of life in Jamshedpur is better than in any other city in India. It has twenty-four hours water supply, electric supply, it has education for all its residents and it has cleaner air than any other city.”

The arrangement between Tata and Jamshedpur is indeed an unusual one: it long predates the era of “corporate social responsibility”, and its evolution in the past several decades provides another lens through which to understand the company’s shifting priorities in the age of liberalisation.

According to the unique lease first signed with the erstwhile government of Bihar in 1894, and renewed with successive Bihar and Jharkhand administrations, Tata Steel now pays a “revised rate” of 2 per acre each year for 14,037 acres of land in Jamshedpur. In return, it is mandated to develop the town of Jamshedpur and render civic services such as building and maintaining roads, sewerage, water supply and maintenance, street lighting, supplying electrical energy, telephone lines, health welfare and dispensaries, social welfare centres, dairy and poultry farms and other similar services for the inhabitants.

Tata Steel can recover the charges for services provided, but subject to the maximum ceiling fixed under the Bihar and Orissa Municipal Act, which implies setting nominal government rates affordable to all people living in Jamshedpur. “This is a perpetual lease, a constitutional lease,” said Paul, with a strong hint of pride during our brief phone conversation. “There is no other city in the country with such an arrangement.”

But the fundamental loophole in the administration of Jamshedpur also comes from this “perpetual” lease agreement—from a tension between the “geography” of the leased land and the “demography” of the people to whom Tata must provide services. The land occupied by Tata Steel under the lease agreement constitutes less than half of Jamshedpur’s estimated area of 37,000 acres, but Tata is required to provide basic civic services to “the inhabitants of Jamshedpur”.

Jawaharlal Sharma, a 68-year-old activist in Jamshedpur, has been challenging the implications of the lease agreement for almost three decades. More than six feet tall and broad-framed but thin, Sharma has lived his entire life in Jamshedpur, and in 1988 he filed and won a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court demanding the right to vote for a municipal council in Jamshedpur.

“The Constitution guarantees a third vote to every citizen,” said Sharma, sitting in his small but breezy apartment in Sonari, a dense residential area near the confluence of the rivers Swarnarekha and Kharkai in Jamshedpur. “Then why does our Jamshedpur not have a third vote?”

On the face of it, Sharma’s PIL was a straightforward demand to uphold a constitutional right. In 1989, following Sharma’s PIL win, the Supreme Court ordered the Bihar state government to declare its intention to convert Jamshedpur into a municipality. The city never did get a municipality. The practical outcomes of Sharma’s legal win were stymied by political, private and legal machinations.

In a later appeal to the Patna High Court in 1992, Sharma contended that “nearly 700,000 people of Jamshedpur do not get proper drinking water, electricity, road, sewage, hospital or school facilities. These people lead a miserable life and they consider themselves as second class citizens of Jamshedpur.” Sharma’s appeal further alleged that Tata Steel spent somewhere less than 50 million annually on the civic services provided to Jamshedpur’s residents, though it saved nearly 4 billion in municipal taxes thanks to the lease agreement.

According to the former senior Tata Steel officer quoted earlier, who worked in Jamshedpur for more than three decades, the cost of providing municipal services may have been considerably higher than Sharma’s estimate. Prior to 2004, the administration of Jamshedpur was handled by Tata Steel’s “town division”, a body akin to a municipality that carried out the lease mandate. “They [Tata Steel] had a deficit of about 75 to 78 crores between expenditure and revenues for maintaining the township,” the former senior officer said. “So they started a subsidiary”—the Jamshedpur Utilities and Services Company (JUSCO)—“and funded it for the first two years and then stopped and told JUSCO to charge for its services. Nature’s free gift was turned into a business.”

In 2005, when Tata Steel’s lease in Jamshedpur was renewed, the company took full responsibility, via JUSCO, for delivering all municipal services in Jamshedpur. Yet JUSCO not only charges higher than government rates for water and electricity, in contravention of the leasehold agreement, it has different tariffs for Tata Steel officers, employees and those living within and outside the leasehold area.

Ironically, Tata Steel’s own land and water requirements to produce steel in Jamshedpur have been met practically for free. The city was founded at the confluence of two rivers, the Swarnarekha and the Kharkai, which once formed the lifeline of the tribal communities who inhabited the area. When CM Weld, an American who had been exploring to find a site for the new Tata Steel plant, came upon the intersection of the two rivers—“which never run dry”, as RM Lala describes the dramatic discovery in The Romance of Tata Steel—he knew he had found a location capable of supplying the huge volumes of water required to manufacture steel.

A hundred years later, both the rivers stand eerily still and in many portions, they have indeed dried out. When I asked Prabhat Sharma, who heads Tata Steel’s communications division, about the state of the rivers, his response was curt. “The rivers don’t belong to us,” he said firmly, making almost defiant eye contact. “It’s simple.”

One hot afternoon, Jawaharlal Sharma took me on an auto rickshaw tour of Jamshedpur. At the banks of the Swarnarekha, we found more than 100 people bathing and washing clothes, utensils, cycles, motorbikes and even a car in the river, amidst the water hyacinth. Buffaloes wore a content expression from their stillness in the same water. At one point towards the left, the hyacinth-ridden river broke into mini-waterfall. It was a small dam throwing water up to a treatment plant run by JUSCO. “It’s a very good plant but the water is not for everyone,” said Sharma.

In an area known as Bhuiyadih, Sharma pointed to a spot where industrial effluents run directly into the river. “This is polluted water from the Tata Steel plant,” said Sharma. We then looped around the Tata Steel plant, steeped in more than a hundred years of history. From a distance, it looked like a Lego model with giant-sized inverted cigarettes puffing smoke into the sky. My request later for an inside tour of the plant was denied by Tata Steel. The surrounding air felt heavy with a faint but distinct noxious smell mixed with plumes of traffic smoke. It became worse as we passed through an area known as Burma Mines and approached the Tatanagar Railway Station, where the air was visibly black and smoky. A little further up, in a place known as Jugsalai, we came upon a huge mountain made of thousands of tonnes of boiler ash generated from Tata Steel units and dumped openly. By Tata Steel’s own admission in the past, the groundwater in the area has higher than permissible levels of hardness and dissolved solids.

At the end of our journey, we cut back across town and entered the heart of the “TISCO township” area, as it is popularly known. The crème of the city, it is here that Jamsetji Tata’s vision of wide streets and lots of shade suddenly jumps to life and the home minister’s claims on behalf of Jamshedpur appear to hold some clean water. A rolling landscape with tree-lined boulevards holds rows of charming bungalows, which house senior Tata Steel officers. Running through the area is the beautiful, lush green Jubilee Park. Inside the park, fruit vendors line up at neat intervals. Nearby is a big zoo with a runner’s pathway and boardwalk overlooking a lake. Intricately carved wrought iron benches and gazebos on the boardwalk lend a turn-of-the-20th century feel to the area. Garlanded bust statues of Jamsetji and JRD Tata are visible at different spots within the township. “There are good sewage and garbage disposal systems here, a club for social entertainment, twenty-four-hour water and electricity supply,” said Sharma. “But it’s not for everyone, again. It’s only for the Tata’s steel employees and officers.”

One of the most vocal critics of Tata Steel’s environmental record in Jamshedpur is a former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA, Saryu Roy, who told me that “all the pollution” in the town had been “directly or indirectly” caused by the company—a situation that he claimed had only worsened as production at the plant had increased. “Permission given by the state and central pollution control boards to enhance its [Tata Steel’s] production capacity up to ten million tonnes in a densely populated township and about half a dozen educational institutions at its close circumference bear testimony that Tata Steel does not have any respect for the environment of Jamshedpur.”

The company’s defenders could rightly point to its extraordinary role in Jamshedpur—after all, it founded, designed, built and maintained the city from its start; it has arguably done more for the development of Jamshedpur and the welfare of its citizens than any other private company in any other city. But its administrative role—determined by the original lease—implies obligations well beyond that of a private company, and closer to those of an elected government. Few modern companies are run with such priorities in mind, needless to say. But then most such companies are not entrusted with the governance of cities in exchange for cheap land and considerable tax savings.

Jamshedpur has traditionally been the epicentre of Tata Steel’s community development and outreach programmes, and the list of these initiatives is indeed a long one. In a village near the picturesque Dimna Lake, about 12 km from Jamshedpur, I saw a dairy and livestock training centre for the rural community, which now wears a haunted look. Clearly inscribed on a well inside are the words, “Constructed by Villagers and Tata Steel Rural Development Society, 1981.”

Residents and former Tata Steel employees alike, however, suggested that the commitment to these programmes, particularly outside the areas closest to the plant, had declined considerably. A short drive further up, I met a group of traditional tribal basket weavers sitting in their hamlet, facing low-lying forested mountains. About half a dozen of them congregated around and began speaking about their basket weaving skills with endearing pride, while lamenting their diminishing ability to earn a decent living. “We feel betrayed,” one of them said. “They [TSRDS] began to train us but then stopped, leaving us high and dry. Suddenly, we had better skills but no way to acquire the raw material or sell products in the market.”

In Jamshedpur, water taps that were installed by Tata in the bastis can still be found, but they are now dry; public bathrooms bearing TSRDS signs have become open garbage dumps. “I remember those taps used to provide water three to four times a day in bastis,” said Banna Gupta, a Congress MLA for Jamshedpur West. “Sweepers used to wipe the city clean in the early hours of the morning.”

The former senior Tata Steel officer confirmed that the company had scaled back its efforts in the city. “The basti and community centres were the main link Tata Steel had with the poor and residents of the city,” he said. “Someone must have thought it useless expenditure and stopped.”

The decision to reduce community work, the former officer continued, was a deliberate one, with an eye toward reducing costs. “They were not clear what they were getting out of it anymore,” he told me. “And at some point, the tail was wagging the dog. Staff salaries and overheads from CSR were costing more than the programmes themselves. After so many decades, they had not made the tribals any happier and they realised that other companies were spending a lot less and doing it smarter.”


I N JULY THIS YEAR, Tata Steel unveiled its “Values Stronger Than Steel” ad campaign at a cost estimated to be 500 million. In a press release to announce the advertisements, the company’s managing director, HM Nerurkar, explained their message:

Tata Steel has always believed in the values laid down by our founding fathers and has to its credit an unmatched track record in achieving industrial and community sustainability. We are growing and as we grow, we touch more and more lives of the communities we serve—shareholders, employees, partners, vendors and customers—and through this campaign we wish to spread these values to all our stakeholders and to the citizens of India.

If the reporting above has dwelt at length on the less savoury aspects of Tata Steel’s “unmatched track record”, it is not because the company represents the worst of its kind, but because in the minds of most Indians, it represents the best.

The acquisition of Corus in 2007 may have thrust Tata Steel into the ranks of the global steel giants, but the company’s own balance sheets show that India remains its most profitable area of operation—thanks in part to its long-standing and privileged access to mineral resources and other public goods like land and water. In 2010, the company processed an estimated 13 million tonnes of iron ore in its Noamundi plant, according to Soumitro Chatterjee, a Tata Steel official in charge of corporate communication in Noamundi. The market price per tonne of iron ore in 2010-2011 was an estimated 6,000—but since Tata Steel has its own mines, it has to pay only a token royalty, 126 per tonne, to the state government for its iron ore.

Despite the global economy’s sluggish recovery, and the slowing global demand for steel, Tata Steel reported profits last year of 90 billion (about $1.8 billion), with a record 68 billion derived from its Indian operations. In the company’s 2010 annual report, a statement from Ratan Tata notes that “Tata Steel’s European operations remained under-utilised and hence unprofitable.”

Here in India, a massive reduction of almost 40,000 jobs in the company’s permanent workforce passed virtually unnoticed—a stark contrast to the situation in the UK, where plans to shed 1,200 jobs at its Scunthorpe plant attracted widespread press attention and comment from the British prime minister. (Ratan Tata’s contemporaneous remarks about “lazy” British workers “unwilling to go the extra mile” added further drama to the proceedings.)

At a recent steel summit in Delhi, Union Steel Minister Beni Prasad Verma delivered an address whose unwitting contradictions were particularly revealing. After proudly stating that India is on track to become the world’s second-largest producer of steel by 2013, that domestic demand for steel is growing by 10 percent annually, and that it was imperative to establish the “desired capacities” to meet that demand as quickly as possible, he proceeded to warn the industry delegates that “there is an urgent need to conserve our scarce natural resources.”

Verma went on to warn that land acquisition now represented “a major challenge” for steel companies: “India is a thickly populated country. Most of the people in rural areas are largely dependent upon agricultural land for maintaining their livelihood.” While the government toils over its long-promised land acquisition bill, it’s clear that disputes over land and development represent a major fault line in contemporary India—and one that Tata Steel must straddle, along with a host of equally thorny debates over the environmental impact of extractive mining, the welfare and protection of tribals and the demand for development-led economic growth. Local resistance to land purchases and displacement grows more intense with each year, and it is becoming harder and harder for companies like Tata Steel to launch greenfield projects—which deliver the expanded capacity, growth and profits that shareholders and investors expect.

The traditional means of obtaining local consent—the promise of jobs and steady income—now clash with the desire for increased productivity and minimal labour costs. In Noamundi, I met Geetu Reddy, a firebrand four-time president of the Tata Steel Workers Union, who described a series of recent conflicts, in several locations, between the company and aggrieved locals who had been promised jobs that did not materialise, and who forced temporary shutdowns of plants or mines in retaliation. “If you can’t give, don’t promise,” Reddy said. “False promises to the public work like cancer.”

Reddy, like almost all of the former and current employees I interviewed, still spoke with a certain respect for Tata Steel, and an unabashed reverence for its founding fathers. On the subject of Jamsetji Tata, Reddy said simply, “he is my God.” Jamsetji’s picture, he continued, “will be there in every employee’s house. Thousands of people get food on their plates because of his vision.”

“It was JRD’s dream that if the company earns 100 rupees, it should spend 75 on the community,” Reddy continued. “Now it is the opposite. Now the attitude is keep the entire 100 and don’t part with even one rupee. His dream has been reversed.”

Reddy had worked for several other steel companies, he told me, and he conceded willingly that Tata Steel still provided facilities for its workers above and beyond those of any of its peers. “This I believe with my heart,” he said. “But I don’t think they can complete another 100 years if they keep on going like this. Even now they have not lost anything. If they correct themselves, the company will go on to live for another 1,000 years.”

This reportage was completed on The Caravan-Panos South Asia Special Assignment Fellowship for Print Journalists (2010).

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