Heavy Metal

India’s first smelters and their fraught history with the Tatas

sandhya visvanathan
01 December, 2017

On a Sunday afternoon in July, a fellow reporter and I were on our way to Sakhuapani, a sleepy and isolated village about 170 kilometres from Ranchi, Jharkhand’s capital. Cell-phone coverage is sporadic here, and the nearest town, Netarhat, often referred to as the “Queen of the Chota Nagpur plateau,” is about 15 kilometres away. As our sedan turned onto a desolate and narrow road, it was blocked by a row of parked lorries. We had to ask the drivers to shift them and let us pass through to get to the village. It had rained incessantly during our three-and-a-half-hour drive from Ranchi, and it was still drizzling as we approached the village.

Sakhuapani is inhabited primarily by the Asur—an Adivasi community believed to be India’s first metallurgists. The Asur, predominantly concentrated in Jharkhand, is said to have descended from the mythological Asuras—the supposed pioneers of metal craft in the Vedic era. There are around 75 families living in Sakhuapani today. The Asuras’ primary method of metal extraction—procuring charcoal from sal trees and using it to smelt iron ore—supposedly yielded rust-free iron. Stories about this method are entrenched in Asur folklore and rituals. In one custom, songs about a furnace are sung to expecting mothers. Sal trees were always central to Asur life; the literal meaning of Sakhuapani is “sal water.”

The Asurs’ traditional smelting profession has declined over the years, denying them what was once their chief source of livelihood. In 1907, Tata Steel, currently the second-largest steel company in India, built a steel plant in Sakchi, now known as Jamshedpur, a village about 300 kilometres from Sakhuapani. Although the plant was a good distance away, AK Pankaj—a writer researching indigenous human-rights, whom I met in Ranchi—explained that the Tatas’ industrial smelting practice effectively made the Asurs’ traditional process redundant. He added that the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, which placed an embargo on the indiscriminate felling of trees, severely threatened the Asurs’ smelting method. The Asur also believe that their method of smelting was reproduced, without credit, by the Tatas.

Sushma Asur, a poet, activist and the creator of the Asur Adivasi Wisdom Documentation Initiative—a Facebook page that petitions for increased public acceptance of Asur traditions—met me in Sakhuapani. Sitting on the floor of her austere mud hut, in a pink sari, Sushma told me about the Tatas’ alleged theft of the ancient Asur smelting method. “Every child of every household knows about it,” Sushma said. “My father, Khambilal, told me about it. His ancestors Sameer Asur and Dobwa Asur passed on the story over generations. They claimed that men with big cameras, who were Tata employees, would spy on our methods of identifying the right ore, lighting furnaces and smelting.”

Sakhuapani no longer has a smelting unit. Sushma’s brother-in-law, Melan Asur, who was at the meeting in her house, explained that the last professional smelter in the region was a man named Mahto Asur, who died in 1975. Jata Asur and Sohna Asur, elders in the community who are in their mid nineties and live 20 kilometres from Sakhuapani, have continued smelting, but never as a primary occupation.

The decline of the profession is only part of the considerable turmoil experienced by the Asur community since the 1970s. In 1994, a group of Asurs formed the Kendriya Jan Sangharsh Samiti, or KJSS, a redress cell to deal with the damage caused by the Netarhat Field Firing Range—the Army’s heavy-artillery firing practice zone near Sakhuapani. According to Melan, stray shots from the range caused the deaths of between 20 and 25 people from various communities, including the Asur. Sameer Asur—a 32-year-old committee member of the KJSS—who was also present at Sushma’s house, claimed that the cell had initially gathered the support of about a hundred-thousand members from the Asur, Munda and Oraon communities, but their enthusiasm gradually dwindled because of differing agendas.

The smelting traditions of various indigenous groups in India have found their way into a range of literature on iron-ore extraction. Drawings of furnaces used in Birbhum were included in a journal compiled by the Irish geologist Thomas Oldham. An 1881 geology manual on India contains photographs of smelting and details about the furnaces used by the Agaria, an Adivasi community in Chota Nagpur. The Scottish geographer Francis Buchanan, whose descriptions appeared in the 1907 work A Monograph on Iron and Steel Work in the Province of Bengal, noted that indigenous smelting in Birbhum, a district in West Bengal, heavily influenced European companies. The monograph suggests that a model of smelting furnaces used in Chota Nagpur was transported to the London International Exhibition, a display of inventions from around the world that was held every year between 1871 and 1874.

An Indian industrialist was also alert to the possibilities that iron extraction offered. One of JN Tata’s biographies suggests that he investigated iron deposits across the country around 1902, following advice from the American engineer and inventor Julian Kennedy, who was a key figure in drawing up plans for the first Tata plant. Tata also visited the “hill of iron” at Lohara, an iron deposit discovered by a German geologist. However, a particularly lucrative prospect came Tata’s way in 1904, when Pramatha Nath Bose, a survey officer, wrote to him about Gurumaishini Hill in Mayurbhanj, a former princely state in Odisha. He described it as an area with rich iron deposits and ore-floats—ore that is visible on the surface and can be hand-picked without mining. Although JN Tata died unexpectedly that year, the first Tata plant was set up according to Bose’s advice in Sakchi, now called Jamshedpur.

Sushma, Melan and Sameer suggested that the Tatas had not been enthusiastic about assisting the Asur. Melan told me that a group of Asurs had travelled by bullock cart to a Tata office in Jharkhand in the mid 1970s. They asked for employment—even menial jobs—but were turned away. By that time their old profession was already in serious jeopardy. The majority of the Asur community—95 percent of them, according to Melan—shifted reluctantly to agriculture, leaving only a few people to carry on with smelting.

Whether the Tata plant in Sakchi had a direct effect on the Asur community is difficult to ascertain. “The Asurs cannot hold Tatas to be responsible for the demise of their craft,” Tathagata Neogi, an archaeologist and researcher, told me. “When I did my research in Jharkhand, they used to always say that the Tatas have taken their technology but the Asur and Tata processes of making steel are totally different.” He did agree, though, that the Asurs’ profession declined because of the mass production of iron and steel in India.

Night had begun to descend by the time we left Sakhuapani. We encountered the lorries again, which it turned out, belonged to Jindal Steel and Power Limited, a steel and energy conglomerate. The vehicles were being used for bauxite-mining in mines near Sakhuapani. I recalled the local saying that Pankaj had told me: “Bahar se jo bhi gaadi aati hai, vo apne sath bahut bimariyan le aati hai”—a vehicle from the outside world always brings many ills with it.