Wednesday, August 22

The Tata View


Mamma grew up in Noamundi which is described here and Nana worked for TISCO. So we are connected to this company. 

Happy reading. But I'm afraid it's not pleasant reading. Still there are no other choices for global companies. 




An extract relating to Noamundi

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.”

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