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Field to Factory: Film and ethnography of industrialisation in Chhattisgarah, Central India

The Bhilai Steel Plant

The Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP[i]) - a public sector undertaking run by the Steel Authority of India - was built with Soviet co-operation and technology, and began production in 1959. It was deliberately located in what was then regarded as a remote and "backward" rural area, profits being secondary to employment in the planning priorities of the time. BSP currently has nearly 55, 000 permanent workers on its direct pay-roll, of whom approximately three-fifths work inside the 17 square kilometer plant and the remainder for its associated mines and quarries, and for the purpose-built BSP township. This compares with a regular workforce of 63,400 in 1987. In addition, on any one day there are at present something in the region of 8,000 contract workers employed by the plant and the township, and a further 3,500 - 4,000 employed by the mines. Though a handful of managers, and a significant proportion of the contract labour force, are women, all of the regular BSP workers assigned to duties inside the plant are men.

Photograph of Bhilai Steel Plant Photograph of Bhilai Steel Plant across the water
Photograph of Bhilai Steel Plant Photograph of Bhilai Steel Plant across the water

Despite a workforce which is far larger than that of plants of comparable capacity in other steel producing countries with which it must increasingly compete, BSP has  for some years shown a profit, and is widely regarded as the most successful of those in the Indian public sector. It runs at its four million ton capacity; produces cheaper steel, and has a record of considerably more harmonious industrial relations than any of the other state-run steel plants, and also than the vast majority of private sector factories which now surround it, and for which it served as a magnet. Initially these were small-scale ancilliary industries directly dependent on BSP. Some prospered and grew into fairly large-scale enterprises, while other industrialists from elsewhere were offered incentives to locate on the new industrial estate which now houses around 200 factories.[ii] Aside from this development, the 40 kilometer belt between the district headquarters in Durg to the east and Raipur to the west is today a more or less continuous ribbon development of factories and housing colonies.

In order to make way for the plant, the mines, the BSP township and the private sector industrial estate, land from 96 villages was compulsorily purchased by Government. Though local job creation was one of its main objectives,  and though the principle was soon established that one member from every family which had relinquished land should have an automatic right to BSP employment, the local Chhattisgarhis were initially reluctant recruits. Two reasons are invariably cited. The first is that their consumption needs were extremely limited, and that they saw no reason to work more than was required to meet them. Those who still had some land preferred to farm it, while many of those who now only had BSP compensation money preferred to eat and drink and let tomorrow take care of itself. The second is that many believed that in order to put such a massive plant into production thousands, - if not tens of thousands - of human sacrifices (balis ) were going to be necessary. New recruits were being set to work for a few days and then surreptitiously thrown into the foundations to make them bear the weight of such massive buildings, or into the furnaces to make them function. [iii]

Photograph of Bhilai Steel Plant Township
Bhilai Steel Plant Township

Partly because of the reluctance of local labour to accept the jobs on offer, and partly because the plant required industrial experience and skills that they did not anyway possess, large numbers of outsiders began to flock into the area from all corners of the country. Many settled in Bhilai and have raised families there, giving the surrounding urban area a remarkably cosmopolitan character. By now, however, the Chhattisgarhis have long since learned new wants and overcome their fear of the plant. Today the competition for jobs is pitiless, and is largely responsible for the development of potentially explosive tensions between the "sons-of-the-soil" and those they continue to regard as immigrant outsiders.

These tensions focus on public sector employment, and particularly on permanent jobs with the steel plant. As in the rest of India, all government jobs are highly sought after, but in Bhilai a BSP job is the acme of most ambitions. The plant's workforce is the local "aristocracy of labour". Employment is secure, the wages are high, the bonuses good and the fringe benefits excellent: company quarters at highly subsidised rates which are sometimes sublet at considerable profit; easy credit for house-building and consumer expenditure, free health care for the family and schools for the children; travel concessions of surpassing generosity for the worker and all his dependants, as well as a host of other allowances and facilities. Moreover, a few managers and workers are widely reputed to make a considerable "income on top" from innumerable scams and rackets associated with plant property, purchasing requirements and sub-contracting arrangements; and some certainly make a not insignificant supplementary income from their moonlighting activities, which are sometimes capitalised by BSP loans, and to which they may devote as much time as they do to their jobs in the plant - to a shop, a taxi or a buffalo herd, perhaps, or to property dealing, a business installing TV satellite dishes or providing computer training. In terms of consumption patterns, life-style and aspirations, a visible minority of workers merge seamlessly into the middle class.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that foul as well as fair means are supposedly employed in attempting to conquer the citadel walls.[iv] High caste aspirants acquire Scheduled Tribe, or even Scheduled Caste, certificates to try to get in on the reserved quota[v]; everybody is searching for some "source" who has influence in the employment exchange to advance their papers in the queue of applicants, and "brother-nephew-ism" (bhai-bhatijavad ) is assumed to be rampant in the selection process. But it is also assumed to be less effective than blunt bribery channelled through some dalal , or middle man, who can pull the right strings. I have no means of knowing how often any of this money ever reaches anybody who could actually influence recruitment - a good deal less often, I strongly suspect,  than is popularly supposed. It is certainly the case that in this respect BSP's reputation is no worse than most other public sector employers throughout the country (and is probably a good deal better than many). Nevertheless, every third or fourth house in the neighbourhoods I studied has a story about how they paid this or that man a substantial sum to fix up their son in the plant. And of course the almost invariable sequel is that there was no job and that the money was never returned. During my first phase of fieldwork in 1993-4, those who had recently given, and in almost all cases lost their money, claim to have paid anything between Rs 5,000 - 15,000. But rates have rocketed in the last couple of years, and now I am told of demands in the range of Rs 35,000 - 50, 000 for a post as a Plant Attendant. That would represent around one year's take-home pay for a young BSP worker near the bottom of the ladder, but the equivalent of three or four years' income for a middle-aged contract worker in a small private sector factory.

Many of the villages from which land was compulsorily purchased disappeared without trace under coke oven batteries and blast furnaces, or under the BSP township which is laid out in sectors along broad tree-lined avenues with different qualities of housing for different grades of employee. Other villages on the periphery of the BSP township lost some or all of their agricultural land, but the residential site was left intact. Most of the villagers remained and many eventually took jobs in the plant. Large numbers of outsiders moved in, and gradually most of these villages were swallowed up by urban sprawl. My fieldwork has focused on three of these ex-villages-cum-labour colonies[vi], and in two of them my most intimate contacts were with residents of the Satnami Para - the quarter to which Satnamis and Mehars were traditionally confined. 

Photograph of Supela - One of the villages engulfed by Bhilai Town Photograph of BSP township Sector 5
Photograph of Supela - One of the villages engulfed by Bhilai Town Photograph of BSP township Sector 5


[i] The plant is popularly known by its initials, which is potentially confusing for the many readers who will more immediately associate these with the Bahujan Samaj Party which also has a role in my story. I will employ the initials only for the plant, giving the party its full name.

[ii] Of these, 85 are BSP ancilliaries, as are a further 77 factories located elsewhere in the area.

[iii] I defer a detailed discussion of these rumours of sacrifice to a subsequent publication.

[iv] The citadel image is, of course, borrowed from Holmstrom (1976), though he applies it to all "organised" sector employment.

[v] Although such stories are legion, the ones I heard were without exception tales of failure. The applicant had either got cold feet about using the fraudulent certificate, or had done so and been unmasked by a tip-off to the plant's Vigilance Department. It is, of course, to be expected that success in such a ruse will remain a closely guarded secret since the price of discovery would be certain dismissal. I nevertheless doubt that a statistically significant proportion of reserved posts are actually filled by workers of clean caste.

[vi] Supplementary to this neighbourhood focus, I have so far also spent about seven weeks on the shop-floor in BSP, and a somewhat shorter period in various private sector factories.