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Opposing Nagarnar Steel Plant Privatisation, Workers Ask Govt to ‘Think About the Youth of Bastar Region’

Ronak Chhabra |
Thursday marked the end of a two-day protest programme in the national capital that saw the participation of over 200 hundred steelworkers; the demonstration was called by AITUC-affiliated Samyukt Ispat Mazdoor Sangathan.
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In 2001, when Lindhar Guru, hailing from the tribal-dominated Bastar region in Chhattisgarh, found that his two-acre land in the Nagarnar village had been earmarked to be acquired by one government-owned mining company for the construction of a steel plant, the news put him in jitters.

Land was everything that my family had,” the 53-year-old would say now, when asked about the reasons behind his fear at that time, indicating the much-talked-about role that land played – and continues to play – as a factor endowment of economic development, especially for the tribes.

Yet, it was the prospect of securing a job, along with promises of social development, that had lured Guru and hundreds of others in his neighbourhood to give up their land. Only that, two decades down the line, they feel “cheated.”

The steel plant in question is known as the Nagarnar Steel Plant, being set up by the National Mineral Development Corporation, the country’s largest iron ore mining company, for an estimated cost of Rs. 23,140 crore. Thursday marked the day of the end of a two-day protest programme in the national capital that saw the participation of over 200 hundred steelworkers, including Guru, to oppose the demerger of the plant and the strategic disinvestment of the demerged unit.

Both the decisions were approved by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) last year.

According to the protesters, the decisions betray the people who gave up their land in the hope of a “secured future”.

We were promised that the steel plant would bring in jobs for the local population and that hospitals and schools would be constructed. However, nothing of that sort has happened till now. And now, this government wants to hand the plant over to a private company. We will not let it happen,” Guru said.

Held on Parliament Street, the two-day protest was called by Samyukt Ispat Mazdoor Sangathan (SIMS) – Bastar, affiliated to the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC). Santram Sethia, president of the workers’ union, told Newsclick that the Central Government is going ahead with selling the steel plant without even discussing the matter with the local population. “The region is protected under the fifth schedule of the Constitution, and the provisions of the PESA Act are to be followed. As such, any major decision must be first discussed in the gram sabha. However, it hasn’t happened.”

According to Sethia, close to 1200 families in the region have given up their land – in the land acquisition drives that first took place in 2001 and then in 2010 - and “not all of them” have secured jobs yet, as promised by the NMDC. “In such a situation, privatisation would even put our jobs in danger as the private company would bring people from outside,” he rued.

Sethia too added that the disinvestment of the Nagarnar Steel Plant also means that all the promises of social development in the villages would be “broken” once and for all.

To be sure, unemployment and poverty grapple the villages in Bastar even now, as NewsClick reported earlier on how the NMDC failed to keep up to its words for providing jobs in the region and bringing in the fruits of development. However, protesters say the woes will only be compounded after when a private company takeover.

We gave up our land, trusting that the government company would place the interest of the citizens over profit. That is not the case with a private company,” said Ranjan Yadav, 36, a junior assistant currently employed at Nagarnar Steel Plant. “It is about the future generations as well. We are opposing the privatisation to ensure that their livelihoods are protected.”

On Wednesday, a seven-member delegation of AITUC led by its national general secretary Amarjeet Kaur submitted a memorandum, flaying the Central Government’s decision, to the Union Minister of Labour and Employment Bhupendra Yadav.

The memorandum said that the opposition to the demerger and disinvestment of the Nagarnar Steel Plant has seen “active and emotional involvement” of the local tribal population. Further, the central trade union urged the Labour Minister “to get the matter re-examined” in the interest of the Bastar people, “particularly the much-awaited unemployed youth” of the region.

The trade union also highlighted that NMDC, as of date, has invested Rs. 17,186 crore – out of which Rs. 16,662 crore is from the company’s fund and Rs. 524 crore is raised from Bond Market – in the steel plant that holds the capacity of producing 3 million tonnes of steel per annum.

It also demanded the safety and welfare measures for the contract labourers in the plant unit. They are “denied the minimum wages and other social securities,” violating the labour regulations.

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