When faced with a tiny spark of truth, the biggest falsehoods go up in flames in the blink of an eye. Something quite similar seems to have happened with Tata Steel after Tehelka published a cover story last week, exposing the direct role played by the industrial major in denying Jamshedpur an elected municipal body. Expectedly, Tata Steel mobilised its entire PR machinery to discredit and ridicule the comprehensive news report.
However, on the flip side, social media was abuzz with talk of the “real face of Tata”, with most people finally waking up to Tata Group’s orchestrated, systematic blackout of any negative publicity around its industrial entities. Although the paid comments on the story ranged from malicious to slanderous, including highly objectionable personal remarks, there was a substantial number of shares and likes on the same story, thus pointing to the unprecedented positive response the report has garnered, too.
The cover story titled Tata Steal City published in the 28 February issue of Tehelka, had pointed out how over the past century, Tata Steel had used all the resources at its disposal to deny the residents of Jamshedpur an elected municipal body. These resources included ‘delaying litigation’, punishment through reward and lauding legal contraventions through private recompense. In short, Tata Group had achieved this dubious feat through legal and illegal means.
Currently, a select part of Jamshedpur gets municipal services through the Jamshedpur Utilities and Services Company (JUSCO) and it is primarily this small area that Tata holds up as an example of ‘corporate citizenship’ and ‘sustainability practices’. The other part of Steel City, which houses the majority of the people, lives amid squalor and seems resigned to the unchanging reality of dirty lanes, overflowing drains, poisoned air and polluted water. Residents of this Jamshedpur cannot access social media platforms and hence, even if they may want to, are unable to ‘comment’ on Tehelka’s exposé.
Meanwhile, Tata Steel has accepted in court that it is responsible for the poor environmental conditions in Jamshedpur, especially with regard to the dumping of slag. In August 2011, the Jharkhand High Court had directed the East Singhbhum deputy commissioner to probe the alleged dumping of slag by Tata Steel in Kharkai and Subarnarekha rivers. A division bench comprising Chief Justice (acting) Prakash Tatia and Justice HC Mishra gave the ruling while hearing a PIL on the encroachment of water bodies filed by former BJP MLA Saryu Roy.
Tata Steel, while accepting that slag was being dumped, said it was “done in public interest”. An affidavit filed by the company said slag dumped along the banks of the two rivers until 2003 had helped in checking frequent flash floods. Not convinced by the affidavit, the bench said it seemed to have been “cleverly drafted”. It observed that the company accepted that slag had been dumped on the riverbeds, but it had taken refuge in saying it was in public interest.
Air pollution levels in Jamshedpur are alarming and a recent survey conducted by the regional office of the Jharkhand State Pollution Control Board (JSPCB) has corroborated this. According to the survey, which is being carried out on a monthly basis, the respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM) in the localities of Bistupur, Golmuri and Sakchi of Jamshedpur has gone way beyond the 100 mg/m3 (milligram per cubic metre) mark, prescribed by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). At the JSPCB monitoring station in Bistupur, the RSPM level was 145.92 mg/m3 in November and 146 mg/m3 in December. Golmuri, on the other hand, recorded 145.78 mg/m3 in November and 146.25 mg/m3 in December. Sakchi registered 106 mg/m3 in November and 107 mg/m3 in December. The NO2 levels in ambient air in Bistupur, Golmuri and Sakchi were found to be 48.25 mg/m3, 49.49 mg/m3 and 45.26 mg/m3, respectively. The CPCB prescribed cap for oxides of nitrogen is 40 mg/m3. Similarly, SO2 levels in the localities were 37.72 mg/m3, 37.71 mg/m3 and 36.41 mg/m3, respectively, while the permissible limit is 35 mg/m3.
Going by Tata Steel’s version, it claims that it has, over the years, maintained Jamshedpur as a veritable civic idyll, with tree-lined avenues, clean water and round-the-clock electricity. If this was really the case and if the Tehelka story — based on facts, supported by legal documents and buttressed by clinching photographic evidence — was really ‘motivated’, why did Russi Mody, former chairman and managing director of Tata Steel, ‘challenge’ the elected government of the erstwhile state of Bihar to set up a municipality in Jamshedpur?
In the 17 January 1991 edition of the Amrita Bazar Patrika, a news report describes the arrogance with which Mody had announced, in broken Hindi, “Yeh government toh kya, is government ka baap bhi municipality nahin bana sakti hai (Not just this government, but even its overlords cannot form a municipality here)”. Mody had been addressing a gathering of anti-municipality activists at the children’s park opposite his residence. He had also mocked the judiciary, saying he would contest the municipality case in courts for at least 40 years; in that year, the Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO) had obtained a stay order on the municipality from the Patna High Court. After this stay order, the International Public Relations Organisation had awarded TISCO the Golden Globe for running a comprehensive and effective pr campaign against the setting up of a municipality in Jamshedpur.
This chain of events in no way corroborates Tata’s tall claims of corporate social responsibility, sustainability practices, ethical capitalism and philanthropy. It shreds into pieces the loud assertions of principled money-making made by this 3.72 lakh crore corporate giant and thrusts into public view the greedy capitalist face behind the mask of ‘old money’ and ‘respectability’ that Tata had been cowering behind until now.
The last word in this sordid saga of profiteering and exploitation goes to Rameswar Pattanayak of Rourkela, who has commented on the Tehelka story and said, “Tata House is famous as (an) honest and nation-serving entity. Their heinous acts behind this veil (are) never seen by (the) public. They obtained (the) lease of Badampahad-Gorumahishani iron ore mines from the erstwhile King of Mayurbhanj in exchange for 1 only, with a promise to provide jobs to and work for the benefit of people of Odisha. (But) Tatas pocketed the benefit (and) never shared it with the people of Odisha. On the other hand, they supported Saraikela-Khaarsuan’s merger with Bihar, so that the Jamshedpur plant was not located in Odisha. They reaped (benefits) from Odisha, stayed in Bihar and benefited Bengal. They played the states against each other. They acquired land at Gopalpur-on-Sea but backed out from establishing a steel plant there and never thought of setting up the Nano plant there. The benefit pocketed by Tata House from Odisha enabled them to acquire Corus. They made Odisha bleed and continue to do, using the veil of honesty.”
Pattanayak’s assertions hold equally true in the case of Jharkhand, too. Finally, the fog seems to be lifting and the long-suffering Phagu Sorens of Jamshedpur finally have company. When more voices join the chorus, Soren may just decide to break his silence, speak the truth about Tata and demand that this corporate behemoth face a public trial.