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Samarapungavan and Sankarabharanam

My interest in the steel industry received big impetus thanks to the German companies that constructed the Rourkela Steel Plant (RSP) in Odisha. In 1967, the Press Bureau of German Industry provided me the opportunity to visit the plants of the consortium of six large German companies – AEG - Telefunken, Demag, GHH, Fried Krupp, Mannesmann and Siemens – that constructed RSP during the second five year plan. The 1950s and 1960s were boom years in Germany, which was busy re-constructing the economy after the extensive damage suffered during the Second World War. I had a glimpse of this hectic activity.

The visit was extended by another week by German government providing facilities to look at several other facets of the German miracle – a visit to the Volkswagen works, Daimler Benz, Robert Bosch and the Hanover Fair. The focus of Germany on heavy industry and her pre-eminence in steel greatly impressed me.   

Visit to Ranchi, Jamshedpur...

On return to India, I visited Ranchi, then headquarters of Hindustan Steel Ltd (HSL). M S Srinivasan of the PR Department provided the first introduction to Indian steel and took me to the chairman and senior officials of HSL.  MSS evolved as a veteran in corporate communications. Well-versed in Tamil and English with felicity for expression, he worked with distinction with HSL, MECON, Kudremukh Iron Ore Company and Salem Steel.

In a share taxi I extended my trip to Jamshedpur. Anant, who was heading TISCO Works was a knowledgeable and interesting steel man. Addicted to betel nuts, Anant would open the draw to his right and spit out the red mass even while explaining the intricacies of steel melting!

Lot of promise, little action...

After the launch of IE in March 1968, my interest in the steel sector further expanded. The announcement in the Parliament by Indira Gandhi on setting up three steel plants in the south was a trigger to expanding this interest. IE has the unique record of producing special supplements that were released at the laying of the foundation stone by Indira Gandhi at Salem (15 September 1970), Visakhapatnam (20 January 1971) and Vijayanagar (14 October 1971). These provided further great opportunities to interact with doyens in the steel sector like M N Dastur,  V Subramanian and Wadud Khan.  The opportunities further expanded from 1973 when PIB invited me to participate in the Annual Economic Editors’ Conference that provided rich opportunities to interact with policymakers including steel ministers and secretaries. I remember the interaction with Mohan Kumarmangalam, Minister of Steel & Mines, who had great vision for the development of the steel and mining industries. He brought Wadud Khan who conceived of the holding company, Steel Authority of India Ltd (SAIL), for the HSL units.

 

The explosive decade...

The turbulent first decade of Indira Gandhi’s leadership culminated in the Emergency. Acute shortage of foreign exchange and the commanding heights reserved for the public sector that denied opportunities to expand for the two private steel producers – Tata Iron & Steel Company and Indian Iron & Steel Company, led to a slow expansion of the steel sector. Of the public sector plants, Bokaro took long for establishment; Rourkela and Durgapur steel plants could not operate to full capacity. Bhilai, thanks to the Russians liberally providing for handsome excess capacity, earned kudos for profitable operations.  I expanded my interest by visits to the steel plants on my own.

 

The steel darshans...

Those were not days of cosy trips for media sponsored by industry (especially for the poor country cousins of the media outside Delhi). But the days were cheap. I travelled by train to Nagpur by the GT Express and boarded the Bombay-Howrah Express to detrain at Durg. The kindly PR Department of Bhilai picked me up at the railway station and for the next couple of days, provided rich facilities to look at different sections of the plant, as also to meet the managing director and general managers. The accommodation at the Bhilai House and local transportation and appointments would be meticulously taken care of. I would resume my journey from Durg to Champa and travel around 40 km by jeep to Korba to visit the Bharat Aluminium Company Works, return and resume travel to Rourkela. The three week long trip would also cover Ranchi, Bokaro and Durgapur. This schedule was repeated providing great opportunities to interact with dozens of leaders in the steel sector, as also to gain insights into the working of this vital sector. Several of the senior executives I met later shifted to Ispat Bhavan, the headquarters of SAIL and earned  reputation as chairmen. I met many of these also at the Economic Editors’ Conferences to interact and keep track of developments.

For close to four decades, such interactions with illustrious steel men of India helped IE focus on this vital sector. After liberalisation of the economy in 1991 and the boom witnessed by the steel sector post-2000 also expanded opportunities to cover in detail Tata Steel, Essar Steel and JSW...

 

Slow shaping of southern steel plants...

The three southern steel plants announced as a reaction to the bitter campaign of the DMK on the neglect of the south in regard to Central investments, took long to take shape. This was the result of the acute shortage of foreign exchange and the unwillingness on the part of the western countries to invest in government-owned pro-

jects. Thankfully, the Soviets extended rich help. Indira Gandhi hurriedly announced the setting up of a rolling mill at Salem soon after dismissing the DMK government in 1976.  Against the expectations of a large integrated steel plant, the rolling mill was set up at a cost of around Rs 180 crore.

Visakhapatnam Steel Plant took shape as the first port-based integrated steel plant. As in the case of Bhilai and Bokaro, the Russians extended liberal funding for steel making and the Americans funded the sophisticated rolling mills. Over the last three decades, BSP has emerged an efficient producer of rolled products, especially construction steel.

Vijayanagar had to wait longer. The government, short of own resources, left the task of constructing the steel plant to the Jindals. JSW has evolved as a large integrated steel plant with profitable working.

 

Rise and fall of Kudremukh...

Yet another large project – the Kudremukh Iron Ore Company – was launched with a lot of promise. Iran under the Shah of Iran offered to buy 150 MT of iron ore concentrates a year for 15 years, agreeing to fund the entire cost of around $ 630 million. The brilliant technocrat K C Khanna was given the task of construction to a tight schedule of five years. The project was to be tailor-made to feed two steel plants in Iran: to beneficiate the low grade magnetite iron ore in the Kudremukh hills and transport it in slurry form through pipelines to Mangalore Port to be shipped to Bandar Abbas in Iran. The first instalment of a little over Rs 100 crore was received from Iran. But, the Shah was thrown out and the new revolutionary regime resiled on the agreement.

The Government of India decided to complete the project with its own funds. Khanna and his team worked hard and stuck to the schedule. But sadly, the tailor-made product had no takers. It took several years before KIOCL spent more money on converting the concentrate into pellets and found buyers in Japan and South Korea. But, with opposition from the environmentalists, the company turned sick.  KIOCL still is a great model for project planning and timely execution. I remember the efficiency and methodic work of Jaiprakash Associates in taking care of civil works: full train load of workers were taken to Kudremukh, provided with comfortable housing and boarding and repatriated back without hitch on completion of the project. Public sector Hindustan Steel Works Co Ltd (HSCL) provided the contrast : at project site after project site, HSCL struggled to dispose of construction workers rendered surplus after completion of the project.

I recall an interaction with Samarapungavan, an erudite scholar in Tamil, English and Russian with deep insights into steel making. I invited him for dinner at my modest apartment in T Nagar. He quite relished the traditional homely food. I asked him if he was free to view the great musical movie Sankarabaranam. He readily agreed and we moved to the nearby Liberty theatre for the 9.30 pm show. It indeed was a great classic and the rasika in Samarapungavan enjoyed every bit of it! 

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