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Chiria miners turn against Koda

Chiria, Dec. 23: The sleepy little mining township of Chiria, which nestles between the iron ore-bearing hills in the Naxal-infested forests of Saranda, is in ferment. Workers have turned restive and are huddled in meetings before they go on the warpath.

Curiously, they aren’t raging against their employer – state-run steel behemoth SAIL. Rather, they are training their guns against a former colleague: Madhu Koda, now the chief minister of Jharkhand.

“Koda was a casual worker at our Gua mines; his father also worked with us … and now this man wants to destroy our livelihood by gifting these hills to multinationals. We won’t allow this to happen,” says Harjeet Singh, a union leader.

Gua and Chiria are twin mines where Indian Iron & Steel Company (IISCO) started operations in the early decades of the last century. The mines are now owned by Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) after IISCO was merged with the PSU three years ago.

Singh, who heads the Congress-supported IISCO union, is mobilising workers for a protracted agitation against Koda along with leaders from Hind Mazdoor Sabha and the CPI and CPM-supported unions.

The unions, most of whose members here are tribals, were a happy lot when a fellow worker became the chief minister of the mineral-rich state. But they have now started turning against Koda.

They say Koda’s move to take away mining leases in this area — considered to be the richest iron ore-bearing reserves in Asia — from SAIL and award them to multinationals can affect the livelihood of tribal members.

Sometime back, the Jharkhand government had cancelled two of SAIL’s six mining leases in the area as a first step to awarding them to rival steel makers who had evinced interest in the 1.8-billion-tonne ore reserves at Chiria. However, the cancellation of the mining leases has been stayed by law courts and a legal battle is on.

Trade union leaders say Koda’s “war” against SAIL will throw thousands of miners out of work and spark job losses across the state as SAIL provides both direct and indirect employment.

The state-run steel company, Jharkhand’s single largest employer, employs roughly 60,000 people in various projects in the eastern tribal state. The township at Bokaro, where SAIL has an integrated steel plant, has a population of 8 lakh.

The expansion of SAIL’s steel-making plant at Bokaro is dependent on ore from mines such as Chiria. Along with Chiria, 14 other mining projects that SAIL initiated in Jharkhand have been stalled because they haven’t received requisite approvals ranging from forest clearance to the award of prospecting licences. SAIL officials say that the state government officials have informally told them that the approvals for the other projects won’t be given till the Chiria case is settled.

Lease renewal applications for several mines have been pending for over four years. Seven projects have yet to receive clearances from the department of forestry — a pre-requisite for mining in these dense Sal forests.

Plans for new mining operations at Topailore in Gua, Kiriburu, Barsua and Kalta have also been held up because they haven’t received various approvals.

Applications for new leases or prospecting licences at Ghatkuri, Meghataburu, Karampada and Ankua are also snagged in red tape.

Similar licences have been awarded to a large number of mining and metal companies, many of which have little or no experience in either iron ore mining or steel making.

SAIL says it intends to invest about Rs 4,000 crore in developing Chiria and Gua alone. The money will be spent on plants, new roads, new hospitals and drinking water projects. Chiria and other smaller mining projects in the state are crucial to the steelmaker’s plans to add some 19.5 million tones of new steel-making capacity in the state.

SAIL’s expansion programme involves an expenditure of Rs 40,000 crore – a level of investment that any other state government would have been ready to roll out the red carpet for.

After adding new steel-making capacity, most of it in Jharkhand, SAIL is expected to account for a fifth to a quarter of steel production that the country will require by 2020.

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