September 23, 2022

Indian workers defend the steel of their lives

— Consortium news

What we have here, written Vijay Prashadis a government adhering to the religion of privatization and willing to cannibalize Visakha Steel

THE long and distant era of prehistory, dated before the beginning of the common era, is conventionally divided into three periods: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Subsequently, in the era of written history, we generally did not rely on specific metals or minerals to define our periods.

Too many metals and minerals, exploited by new production techniques and new ways of working, have contributed to our immense capacity to generate large surpluses. There is the Age of Industry but not, for example, the Age of Steel, the metallic core of our time.

“We grow up with iron”, wrote the Russian poet Aleksei Gastev in 1914. He looks at furnaces and forges, hammers and machines, then:

Looking at them, I straighten up.

To pour into my veins a new blood of iron,

And I start to grow.

I myself am growing shoulders of steel and infinitely strong hands.

I merge with the iron edifice.

With my shoulders, I push the rafters and beams up to the roof.

My feet are on the ground, but my head is higher than the building.

And while I’m still suffocating from my inhuman efforts,

I’m already screaming:

a word, comrades, a word!

The iron echo heeded my words, the whole building

trembles with impatience.

I keep climbing upwards; I’m at the pipes.

And there is no story here, there is no speech.

There is only the cry:

we will triumph!

The virus of deindustrialization that assailed North America and Europe in the 1970s created a field of scholarly literature on post-work and post-industrial society. These writings led to the curious hypothesis that the digital economy would be the main engine of capital accumulation; there is marginal interest in the fact that even the digital economy needs infrastructure, including satellites and undersea cables as well as power plants to generate electricity and gadgets to connect to digital highways.

This digital economy relies on a range of metals and minerals, from copper to lithium. Old steel, hardened in large factories, however, continues to be the foundation of our society. This steel — a thousand times stronger than iron — is as ubiquitous in our world as plastic.

Over the past 50 years, steel production has tripled. The main steel producers are now China, Europe, India, Japan, Russia and the United States. During the pandemic, steel production fell just 1%, largely because domestic demand in countries like China and India kept the furnaces on. While steel production in China has moderately declined due to concerns over overproduction, Indian steel mills have increased their steel production during the pandemic.

Many of these factories in India are owned by the public sector, built with public funds and administered by state and parastatal entities. Among these factories is Rashtriya Ispat Nigam Limited, a steel complex in Visakhapatanam in the state of Andhra Pradesh in southeastern India.

The factory, affectionately known as Visakha Steel, was born out of a mass struggle by the people of Andhra Pradesh that began in 1966 and lasted until the kilns were lit in 1992. The complex of the he factory was established at a time when the Indian state – under pressure from the Indian ruling class and the International Monetary Fund – began to liberalize the economy, including through the privatization of state assets.

The factory was born in a liberalized world with the government eager to scuttle its possibilities of selling it to private capital in a wave of privatization that might better be called piracy.

The inspiring story of Visakha Steel is the subject of our Dossier No. 55 (August 2022), “The People’s Steel Mill and the Struggle Against Privatization in Visakhapatanam”. The dossier describes the struggles of the people of Andhra Pradesh to force the government to build a factory, a “temple of modern India”, as India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called it. Visakha Ukku, Andhrula Hakku, youths and students chanted, “Visakha Steel is the right of the people of Andhra.

In 1966, the struggle was met with terrible state violence that resulted in the deaths of 32 people and the arrest and torture of many more. Unable to crush the movement, shaped by the communists, and understanding the imperative of more steel for an India desperate to transcend the problems of hunger and illiteracy, the government agreed to build the factory and spent Rs 17 billion till mid-1980 to start construction of the factory.

Since Visakha Steel emerged at a time when the religion of privatization had become dominant, the Indian government has repeatedly sought to scuttle its ability to survive in the public sector by preventing the steelworks from acquiring captive mines, by constructing a nearby captive port at Gangavaram, creating sufficient capacity in its steel smelting workshop (to turn raw iron into steel), and receiving adequate and timely government funding.

The government instead tried to let a private company set up a steel smelting workshop that would use molten iron from Visakha Steel’s blast furnaces to produce processed steel that could be sold in the market at profit margins. high – a decision that the workers won. At no time has the government demonstrated its commitment to producing steel or improving the living conditions of steelworkers and their families.

The workers, on the other hand, had their own ideas. Led by the Indian Trade Union Center and other unions, workers fought to restructure government loans and convert them into state equity, to allocate a captive iron ore mine to the plant and to increase the capacity of the steel melting shop.

As our filing notes, steelworkers have been “strongly committed to growing the business as a technically efficient and financially viable plant, whether fighting to expand the plant, gaining captive mines or solve problems and technical problems”. Whenever a technical problem has arisen in the plant, whether it is coke ovens, power plants, steel mills or others, the workers and the unions have tirelessly carried out in-depth studies and analyzes to find and implement appropriate solutions.

What we have here is a government bent on cannibalizing Visakha Steel and workers engaged in the production of “the people’s steelworks”.

Instead of putting the Gangavaram port into the public sector as originally envisaged, the government has given the port to the Adani Group – whose owner has close ties to Prime Minister Narendra Modi – which charges Visakha Steel a substantial fee. .

It is important to note that this port was built on land that originally belonged to the steelworks. Additionally, while Visakha Steel pays property taxes in the city, Adani Private Port is exempt from paying taxes.

At the same time, Modi’s government attempted to hand over Visakha Steel land to South Korean steel giant POSCO to set up its own rolling mills to produce automotive-grade specialty steel products using the steel of the Visakha factory. In a typical example of stealth privatization, the filing explains,

“Visakha Steel had to handle the most complex, dangerous and messy types of work – purchasing ore, operating coke ovens, oxygen plants and various furnaces – while POSCO would handle the most lucrative part of the supply chain. value.”

Nothing to do, said the workers. Inspired by the historic struggle that built the plant in the first place, workers have started a movement to save Visakha Steel. The tidal wave of this movement – ​​which has received key support from the struggle of farmers, organized rural childcare workers and the people of Andhra Pradesh – has held the hand of the government. As the government faltered during the pandemic, it was steelmakers who kept their oxygen plants running continuously to produce medical-grade oxygen for hospitals.

There is not much written about struggles like this, waged by the brave steelworkers who are mostly forgotten or, if they remember, then maligned. They stand by the furnaces, rolling the steel, quenching it, wanting to build better canals for farmers, build beams for schools and hospitals, and build the infrastructure so their communities can transcend the dilemmas of humanity.

Our file was built through our discussions with the steelworkers and their union, who told us how they see their past and how they understand their fight. They also shared their photographs with us (as well as photographs taken by Kunchem Rajesh of the Andhra Pradesh-based newspaper Prajasakti), from which our art department made the collages that illustrate the dossier (some of which are shared in this newsletter ).

During their demonstrations, the workers sing, chant and recite poems telling them to prepare for battle “before the earth disappears from under our feet, before the steel slips from our hands”. If you try to privatize the factory, they sing: “The city of Visakha will turn into a steel furnace, northern Andhra into a battlefield… We will defend our steel with our lives.

Consortiumnews.org, August 26. Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is editor and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is editor of LeftWord Books and director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.