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Reality dawns on cradle of steel

Kulti, Dec. 25: Asia’s oldest steel factory was reborn in Burdwan today, a much-anticipated event in this small town that brought forth an unexpected reaction.

Several among the 15,000 who turned up to see the reopening of the Kulti steel plant had one prayer: not for a job but an assurance that it would not close down again.

“How many can the plant take? Not everyone will get a job here. Some will, but everyone else will benefit,” said Shamim Akhtar, whose brother used to work there.

Four years of closure — the plant’s owner Sail Authority of India Ltd (SAIL) had shut the unit in 2003 citing unviability — had turned Kulti into a rust belt of 1 lakh people, forcing many to realise how the factory had kept the area ticking.

In suffering, Akhtar has figured out the “trickle-down” economics many politicians living in luxury refuse to learn.

When the factory starts production — in three months if everything goes according to plan — “market me to paisa ayega, kaam dhanda to barega, hum sabka bhala hoga (money will come to the market, business will go up and our lives will improve)”, Akhtar said.

Akhtar runs a cycle repair shop close to the sprawling Kulti steel complex, renamed SAIL Growth Works, 240km from Calcutta.

It is not that no one wants jobs. But many are realising the limitations of companies in providing direct employment.

Bhujoy Bhattacharya, who had 14 years of service left when the Kulti unit downed shutters, harbours no illusions. “If they call me, I will go. But I am not sure if they will. The big thing is the plant is being revived. The town will again see new days.”

His relief was palpable: “We never thought Kulti would be closed. We never thought it would reopen.”

It is not yet clear how much money SAIL would eventually pump into the plant, but the public sector giant has lined up investments of around Rs 20,000 crore in Bengal alone.

At Kulti, SAIL is starting off with two foundries — one will process semi-finished steel as well as scrap and the other will deal with alloy products that can be used in intermediary industries.

The two foundries will require 400-500 people, around 17 per cent of the 3,000 on the rolls when the plant closed shop. Many had taken voluntary retirement and fresh hiring is likely to be on contract.

But allied activities and small units are expected to come up around the plant. Casting and forging units usually prefer sites close to such plants to source their raw material.

Naushad Rayen is not aware of such technical details but he is expecting more sales at his fruit shop. Naushad was among those who held aloft a large symbolic key at the venue of the reopening ceremony today.

Naushad explained why he was also a stakeholder. “Mill chalega to poisa to aayegi logo ki haat main. Woh log to meri dukan me bhi ayega phal lene ki liye (People will earn money if the mill runs. Those people will come to my shop to buy fruits).”

For a change, politicians also spoke keeping in mind the ground reality. Foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee told the crowd: “It’s good news that Kulti is opening. But you have to remember that technology has changed. We have to use modern technology.”

Basudeb Acharya, the CPM MP, too, toned down his speech. “I demand… it is our wish that those who were given VRS should be brought back,” he said.

Union steel minister Ram Vilas Paswan, along with a horde of supporters, flagged off the ceremony. Industries minister Nirupam Sen, at the forefront of the industrialisation drive, could not attend because he was unwell.

SAIL had decided to sell the Kulti plant, set up in 1870, and had proceeded to the extent of seeking formal expression of interest from prospective buyers.

However, with an upswing in global steel business and land turning into a hot issue, SAIL decided to stick to the plant that holds 812 acres. The factory uses 218 acres, leaving nearly 600 acres free for SAIL’s expansion plans.

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