Employees Protest Centre’s Attempt To Wash Its Hands Off VISL, A 100-Year-Old Steel Plant At Bhadravati 

Families of employees of VISL protesting in front of the steel plant
  • The Central government has set in motion plans to privatise VISL, Bhadravati.

    Its workers are upset as they face the possibility of loss of livelihood.

    VISL, a brainchild of Sir M Vivesvaraya, was ‘gifted’ to the Centre by Karnataka.

Once the pride of Karnataka, Bhadravati, home to the state’s oldest steel making unit set up by the Maharaja of Mysore Nalwadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar, now languishes in hurt owing to neglect and lack of investment.

And to add to the worries of those that live in this once-bustling township, state-owned Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) on Thursday (4 July) decided to let go of its stake in the steel plant located in the town as part of its strategic disinvestment programme. It floated a tender inviting Expressions of Interest (EOI) for three special units which also include the Salem Steel in Tamil Nadu and the Durgapur-based Alloy Steel Plant.

Workers protesting in front of VISL seeking intervention by former CM B S Yeddyurappa Workers protesting in front of VISL seeking intervention by former CM B S Yeddyurappa

At VISL though, this is almost the end of a township and the tale of this hundred-year-old plant which is not acceptable to those that call both their own.

“How is it a Loss Making Unit if the central government hasn’t invested in anything but repairs and maintenance over the last three decades?” ask concerned voices in Bhadravati, that houses the Visvesvaraya Iron and Steel Plant (VISL). No sooner did the government go ahead with the enlisting, around 300 permanent workers, and around 1,500 contract workers along with family members and children, infants included, have gone on a protest against the move.

This move comes despite efforts of the state Bharatiya Janata Party leaders to save Karnataka’s first steel plant and one of the oldest in the country from disinvestment. Member of Parliament, B Y Raghavendhra, had raised the issue in the parliament earlier last week ( 2 July). But it seems like his words fell on deaf ears, say workers, who are also marching to the leader’s house in protest.

VISL should not be in this list, contend stakeholders as ‘this was a gift to SAIL from the state government of Karnataka in 1989 for 1 Re, solely so that they could invest for its upgradation and revival. “But in the last 30 years, only 157 crore of out over 75,000 crore rupees that SAIL has invested in its other units have been allotted to VISL, that too for repairs and maintenance. How can they expect profits without investment?, “ asks Chartered Accountant and adviser to the MP on the issue, Dharma Prasad.

“ NITI Aayog has called it a Loss Making Unit (LMU) but although it is making losses, it can’t be called an LMU for it has not seen the required investment,” Prasad remarks, dismissing the grounds for categorisation of the unit in the list.

The two issues plaguing this unit have been the need for technological upgradation and modernisation and the steady supply of iron ore after mining in the state came to a halt.

The source of supply initially were its own mines at Kemmangundi. But its proximity to Bhadra Wildlife sanctuary led to the suspension of mining, as per instructions of the Indian Wildlife Board. This marked the beginning of a new phase of struggles for the steel plant in 2004 after which it had to struggle to find a stable source of major raw material. But this issue was handled when in 2015 the Central government reserved 140 hectares of mine land in Sandur Taluk of Bellary, through a Gazette Notification.

Gazette Notification Gazette Notification

Efforts to revive the unit were made in early 2015. The then union minister for steel and mines, Narendra Singh Tomar, during a visit to the plant, assured an investment of around Rs 1,000 crore to revitalise the unit.

Two years ago, then union minister for steel, Choudhary Birendra Singh, had assured that the steel plant set up by Bharat Ratna Sir M Visvesvaraya would not be privatised. This was after the the raw material issue, which had delayed prior investment, was resolved with the reserving of mining land in Bellary. Last June (2018), the Ministry of Steel had announced plans to modernise and expand VISL. With a proposed budget of around Rs 6,000 crore, a turnaround plan was to be prepared by a team of SAIL experts and an engineering consultancy firm named Mecon Ltd.

The disinvestment notice issued by SAIL in a newspaper.  The disinvestment notice issued by SAIL in a newspaper. 

And that was what should have happened as that was the whole intent with which Karnataka ‘gifted’ the unit to SAIL, opine VISL employees. President of VISL Worker’s Association, J Jagadish, is mighty upset with the recent developments and says protests will be on indefinitely. “When it was given, it was given as a gift that sought to be revived. How can it be sold? Moreover, SAIL is making huge profits. Can they not invest profits of one quarter into VISL and save it? The investment at Salem was over Rs 2,500 crore. What has SAIL invested in VISL?,” he asks.

Excerpts from a letter written by former CM B S Yeddyurappa in 2015 to then steel minister Narendra Singh Tomar Excerpts from a letter written by former CM B S Yeddyurappa in 2015 to then steel minister Narendra Singh Tomar

If this government is truly committed to addressing issues of unemployment and the like, how can it think of disinvestment, they ask. “Over 20,000 lives are connected directly and indirectly to VISL. No private player would want to invest with a bid to revive this. Which makes it highly likely that they will call for a closure. And a closure will affect not just us employees but also the entire township, the auxiliary industries associated, the transport sector and so on,” explains an annoyed Jagadish.

“At one point of time, we were around 15,000 employees. By 2008, we were around 3,000, and now we are around 300 permanent employees as production has been halted here for the last two years. But this disinvestment will bring the curtains down on this once-vibrant town, half of which already looks deserted. But this should not happen as it is not just about a steel plant, it is about a 100-year-old institution, it is heritage,”laments a senior employee Raghavendhra Sringeri.

MP B Y Raghavendra, who had assured the workers of his support, was said to be unavailable at his residence, much to the displeasure and angst of the protesting workers. “ Let our MPs go and meet the PM and try and save VISL. They say it is a policy matter, but we have elected the MPs to work for us and it is they who make the policies for the welfare of people, so it is time they do what it takes to save this,” reiterates Jagadish.

As the sun rises on the fifth day of the protest, the fate of Bhadravati hangs in the air.

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