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Book Extract: Ear To The Ground

Biren Bhuta’s experience in struggling with uncomfortable questions about the tribals would seem intriguing in light of the Tatas’ welfare activities in the area

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I reach Jamshedpur as a hailstorm rages, at the fag end of an unseasonably pleasant April in 2015. The township is a bustling metropolis and home to 1.3 million people, only 26,000 of whom work in Tata Steel. People from all over the country come here to seek employment. Adivasis constitute 28 per cent of the population, and a significantly smaller percentage of the Tata Steel workforce...

I check into the comfortable Tata Steel guest house. The aura of noblesse oblige is everywhere – in the paintings of rickshaw pullers wearily lugging their burdens, the busts of tribal heroes, the displays of hard hats. Also manifest is the pride in industrialization – minimalist paintings of factories, where plumes of smoke float over tall chimneys arranged in geometrical precision, and the portrait of a beautiful woman, the wife of one of the founders, basking, it seems, in the aura of privilege her husband’s stature as a captain of industry bestows on her...

JSR, as insiders refer to their city, was built over an area surrounding the village of Kalimati. That vast expanse of land once accommodated a hundred villages, all set in the midst of verdant forest. Today, the tribals from those villages, as well as the forests, are scarce.

‘People ask me what happened to the tribals who had occupied the 140 sq km over which Jamshedpur is spread,’ says Biren Bhuta, head of the Tata Steel Rural Development Society, over a hearty breakfast in the guest house’s dining hall. ‘I really don’t have an answer.’

An engineering graduate and an MBA, Bhuta left a job in banking to become a TV reporter for business news, but eventually moved from reportage to join the social sector. He chose ‘Bastar over Beijing’, he says, when he gave up a China posting with the Indian Express to work as a consultant for the Tatas in Bastar. In 2010, he joined the Tatas as a full-time employee.

Bhuta’s experience in struggling with uncomfortable questions about the tribals would seem intriguing in light of the Tatas’ welfare activities in the area. However, the hint of condescension in the company’s earlier attitude to the adivasis may be only slightly exaggerated by the following extract from the famous book by R.M. Lala on the Tatas. Lala writes of the early years of Jamshedpur: ‘Though the Maharaja of Mayurbhanj had given highly favourable terms to the Tatas, the local “kings” of the jungle were less hospitable. Tigers killed two tribal labourers.’ It is clear that in this case, the kings of the jungle were wild beasts, while the tribals, traditional forest dwellers now reduced to working as wage labourers, were their unfortunate victims...

In contrast, Verrier Elwin, who had lived among the tribals for over thirty years, regarded the adivasis as members of a regal martial race, adept in the ways of the forest and most suited to living in harmony with its myriad creatures. One of the many features of their society that he admired was the position of women. Of the Gond woman, he writes, ‘Her free and open life fills her mind with poetry and sharpens her tongue with wit. As a companion, she is humorous and interesting.’ Elwin’s views may well have been influenced, however, by his own marriage to a Gond woman.

On the one hand, the Tatas must have pitied the tribals for their precarious existence. On the other, they discounted the adivasis’ distress over their forced displacement, because to an organization run by individuals with an urban perspective, their day-to-day lives seemed worth so little. This attitude, typical of a modernist mindset that is unable to appreciate modes of life different from its own, has been responsible for much of the misery suffered by tribal populations.
Today, however, the stated position of Tata Steel’s CSR department appears to be closer to Verrier Elwin’s than to that of its own founding fathers. The episode in Kalinganagar that Dr Irani refers to as a ‘minor skirmish’ in my meeting with him seems to have played an important role in changing attitudes. Tata Steel’s proposed steel plant at Kalinganagar had come up against strong opposition from the local population, which put forth a number of demands, including recognition of the customary rights of farmers settled on government land, higher compensation, provision of jobs in upcoming industries and involvement of a local organization, the Visthapan Virodhi Jan Manch, in deciding the provisions of resettlement.

The situation reached a flashpoint on a particular occasion, when the company took the initiative of having the land allotted to them for the project levelled. Arrangements had been made for significant police presence to deter anticipated opposition from the locals. A large contingent of armed adivasis also arrived at the site. Local resentment had been simmering for some time, for two previous attempts by Tata Steel to conduct a bhoomi poojan had been marred by vigorous protests. The latest incident that began with jostling and pushing escalated into a conflagration of violence in which the police opened fire on the locals, leading to the death of one policeman and fourteen tribals. After the Kalinganagar incident, the Tatas reverted to some of the benevolent ways of their founders and commissioned the first phase of the plant in November 2015.

‘Companies do not know how to talk to communities,’ says Bhuta, ‘and, more importantly, how to listen to them. They should talk directly, else middlemen come into picture.
‘We have to recognize that land is a traumatic issue,’ he declares emphatically. ‘We should minimize land acquisition and [the] displacement [of locals] by better planning. We have to evolve a new definition of development. ...Tribals have a world view we can learn from.’

Bhuta had just come back from a conference of Tata executives in Mumbai, where he had addressed the CEOs of twenty-five Tata group companies and expressed such views. On his way back to Jamshedpur, he had thumbed a lift on the corporate jet of his MD, a fellow alumnus of IIM Kolkata.

‘The Tata intent is genuine,’ he insists, ‘though our execution may falter.’ ...

‘We need to listen more and bring people together,’ says Bhuta. ‘It is difficult for CSR to become a natural extension of the mining business, unlike in an FMCG company where, for instance, self-help groups can promote responsible saving as well as consumption behaviours. We recognize that we are in an extractive industry which has negative footprints,’ he goes on. ‘The negative footprint has to be converted into a positive handshake with the community, a social licence to operate, if you will.’

‘We need to have a stable environment to grow, without [conditions of] wide-spread deprivation. ...we must be true to the Tata legacy of trusteeship. Politicians can speak against us for their own reasons, but we want the love of the people.’

Click here to read an interview with the author


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