The monk’s forgotten factory

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A defunct Jharkhand steel plant once run by the Dalai Lama has found a buyer, raising hopes of a small town’s revival, finds Shantanu Guha Ray

Hope rises Tusi Rezi, who once served the Dalai Lama tea and food, stands with other workers inside the plant

DUSTY, SLEEPY Hirodih town, 225 km from Ranchi, had not seen so much hectic activity since July 1976 — the year the “Temple” shut down for the record. Yes, only for the record. Because to the locals — especially those whom it employed — it has all these past 30 years been a great deal more than just another shuttered sick unit. Locals say hardly a day has gone by since the old machines ceased to hum at the Gayday Iron and Steel Company — once owned by the Dalai Lama and run by Tibetan refugees — when its former workers, many now infirm with age, have not forgathered in its precincts to relive those glory days.

How much a way of life the factory was for the local populace is best exemplified by the frail Tusi Rezi, caretaker of the guest house in which the Dalai Lama stayed during occasional visits. Her own way of paying obeisance to those bygone times is the very stuff of fairy tales. Rezi, who also cooked food for the Tibetan spiritual leader, makes a cup of tea every day for her mentor. “I let it remain for a few hours in the room he stayed in, and then clean it up. This is my way of staying connected with him. I know I will not see him again, but if the plant starts again I will feel happy,” she says with emotion.

Every five years the revival of the plant becomes an election issue, but none of the politicians in Jharkhand has ever managed to convince either the government or private industry. Now, however, there is a very real possibility of it happening. In early January, a small delegation from Kolkata’s Jupiter Iron Factory was in Hirodih to work out the modalities for reviving the plant that once employed more than 500 workers. “We are hopeful that work will start soon at the plant. The long wait is over,” says Ramesh Singh, a legislator from Koderma who routinely interacted with the villagers to ensure the sale.

A framed photograph of the Tibetan spiritual leader in his younger days
Photos: Mahadev Sen

The ancestors of many of Hirodih’s estimated 16,000 residents, and of its four adjoining villages, were past workers.

But while the demand to revive the plant comes mostly from the jobless, there are others like Tusi Rezi, for whom nothing is more important than restoring the forgotten legacy, because of the Dalai Lama connection. Says Ram Balak Singh, now 65, who was employed as a maintenance supervisor, “We constantly pray for the plant’s revival because of the jobs it will generate. This plant, set up with Belgian governmental assistance, was known for producing world-class steel spun pipes. Along with a paper unit in Bhopal and a wood factory in Bangalore, it was among the projects owned by Tibetan refugees in India.”

Singh who excitedly recalls his 10 minutes with the Dalai Lama in 1968-69, has been engaged by Jupiter Iron Factory to inspect the worn-out machines and prepare a report on the cost of reviving the plant. He calls it a Herculean task but is happy to engage. His mate Mohammad Azim, 62, who was an operator, also sees it as a life-saver. “Illegal coal mining and a bit of farming are all that we have here in Hirodih. If the plant starts again with new machines, so many idle hands would find work to do. When the plant was in operation, this place was like heaven, buzzing with activity.”

‘Babulal Marandi was keen to revive the plant, but there weren’t enough investors to take the plunge’

MOHAMMED AZIM, former operator, Gayday Iron and Steel Company

Heaven translated into Rs 5 a day for daily wagers and Rs 15 a month for casual workers — which in those days was considered decent wages for the unskilled. Permanent employees earned between Rs 180 and Rs 250 a month, and some affluent Tibetans worked on honorariums. There is even mention of the plant in Born in Lhasa, a book by Tibetan writer Namgyal Lhamo Taklha, whose father was the plant’s manager.

Azim says he and others have met scores of politicians down the years to bring the plant back on the rails, but to no avail. “We even met the state’s first chief minister, Babulal Marandi. He himself was interested and set up a panel of experts, but there simply weren’t enough investors to take the plunge. Some of the villagers even travelled to Bodh Gaya but failed to seek an audience with the Dalai Lama. When contacted, the Tibetan government in-exile in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, refused to comment.

Krishna Modi, whose ancestors had donated land for the plant, remembers the many feasts the families organised, as though they were all one large joint family. “That was a time of revelry for us. None of us then worried about not being able to give our children decent education.” And now it could be back to working for fun in Hirodih.

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