I had played in this parlour, the parlour of the plutocrats, as a young child growing up in the august environs of the Tata Iron and Steel Company Limited (TISCO), perhaps one of the most highly regarded institutions of India in the 1970s and 80s.

While we did not seem to have the kind of money my friends from business families had access to, the absence of such a privilege was more than made up for by the perks that came with my father’s position at the organisation—the clubs, the parties, the entertainment allowance, not to mention the TISCO-dealers versus TISCO-officers cricket matches.

I grew up on a diet of legends surrounding the probity of the house of Tatas. Although the controversies of the 2G spectrum allocations should have alerted me that the world had changed and that even the Tatas had found ways to steer their boat in muddied waters, I am taken aback by the antipathy some of my contacts feel for them in Chhattisgarh, and by their sense that the Tatas were just like any other company.

They are alleged by some to have transported fifty villagers to the Collector’s office and obtained signatures in support of one of their projects in lieu of approval by the gram sabha. Others believe that the terms of the MOU they had signed with the Chhattisgarh government are replete with egregious clauses.

Given my understanding that no solution to the crisis in Chhattisgarh can be arrived at without resolving the conflict between mining interests and the local population, I am eager to speak to Tata representatives. As a business house steeped in the philosophy of trusteeship, allocating 3 to 4 per cent of their profits to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities, and as builders of some of the finest institutions in India in the field of basic research and social science, surely they would have a point of view, one that suggests a solution to the imbroglio?

My father puts me in touch with B Muthuraman, former Managing Director (MD) of TISCO, who had held the reins of Tata Steel during the initial years of the Chhattisgarh project. When I tell him about my proposed book project, taking care not to arouse any apprehensions about presumed radical leanings, his voice booms across the radio waves.

“Rohit,” he says,  “I have met many Maoists in my tenure at Tata Steel. I have sympathy for them. They are not at fault. But they get used by politicians and landowners. They don’t have a job, so they join the Maoists. After a few years, they get disillusioned there as well. You must visit Jamshedpur and speak to Biren Bhuta, who handles our Rural Development Society.”

I decide to take his advice. But before starting out for Jamshedpur, for what I imagine might be a boring set of homilies about “the Tata way”, I intend to seek out those who will be able to offer me insights on the ground realities of Tata Steel’s operations. Through a former colleague of my father’s, I manage to gain access to the first Chief Resident Executive of Tata Steel in Chhattisgarh. My desire to meet him intensifies when I learn that following his stint in Chhattisgarh he has resigned from the company. There can only be two reasons for his decision, I speculate. Either he had crossed the ethical boundaries acceptable to the Tatas and had paid for it or he had refused to cross those very boundaries and been made a scapegoat. Either way, I am interested.

I also secure an appointment with  J. J. Irani, former MD of Tata Steel.  In this way, I aim to acquire a certain understanding of the Tatas’ foray into Chhattisgarh, before setting out on my journey to Jamshedpur.

“I call the projects that corporates initiate with much fanfare nothing but a big drama,” declares Sudip Shrivastava, an activist-lawyer with extensive knowledge of the Tata Steel project in Chhattisgarh. I am speaking to him on the phone. “They sign a number of MOUs, far beyond their capacity to execute, only to capture natural resources, and prevent their competitors from gaining access,” he goes on. “These resources will be used at some point in the future, when market conditions turn opportune. State governments, through a mixture of incompetence and lack of integrity, play into the designs of the corporates.”

Rajiv Narayan Singh, Chief Resident Executive of Tata Steel in Chhattisgarh, did not have Shrivastava’s wisdom to comfort him when he emerged from Muthuraman’s office in Jamshedpur in 2007. Muthu had sized RN up from his perch on a swivel chair behind a large oak table, as the younger man, mustachioed and thickset, walked the longish distance from the door to the seat opposite his MD’s.

We are going to build a new Jamshedpur in Chhattisgarh.

“Why are you getting cold feet?’”Muthu had asked commandingly. Over the years, his voice had taken on some of the timbre of his former boss Russi Mody. Then, taking advantage of the opportune visit of a local police officer, Muthu had signalled that the meeting was over. RN would leave dejectedly, without having had a chance to discuss the challenges of the Chhattisgarh project with his MD. It was just over two years into Singh’s tenure, two years since he had been sent off to the mineral-rich state nurturing great dreams.

“We are going to build a new Jamshedpur in Chhattisgarh,” he was told. The entry was to be dramatic and grand. The company was not going to confine itself to mining and steel production. “Find a nice piece of land in Raipur to put up a building that will become the Tata Centre of Raipur,” was the instruction. The Tata Centre, at 43 Chowringhee Road, is an iconic building on Kolkata’s landscape, although somewhat eclipsed over the years by newfangled glass-and-chrome upstarts.

RN reached Raipur late one evening in May 2005, “armed,” as he says now, “with only a visiting card”’ He took up residence in Hotel Babylon, the hotel of note in Raipur at the time. “Had the Chhattisgarh project succeeded, I would have been happy to spend my whole life there,” RN confesses today. “Not just I, many in Tata Steel were totally committed. Who would want to live in Gurgaon, when one could live in Chhattisgarh with such a visionary project to work on and with people as simple and lovable as the Chhattisgarhis?”

RN’s father, T. N. Singh, had been a renowned freedom fighter and a successful politician of independent India. He had been chief minister of UP from 1970 to 1971 as part of the Congress (Organisation) faction that was opposed to Indira Gandhi, and later became the governor of West Bengal. As Governor, he had chosen to eschew the palatial Raj Bhavan, official residence of the viceroys at a time when Calcutta was the seat of the British Empire, and live, instead, in the quarters allocated to the gardeners. His abstemiousness, inspired by Gandhi (the Mahatma not Indira), was sincere. He was a member of the aristocracy of simple living that had grown around the pleasure-renouncing Mahatma.

RN had had a middling stint at Tata Steel until he arrived in Chhattisgarh. As the son of a leading politician, he was part of a club comprising the sons of eminent people, like Ashok Shastri, son of India’s former prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, and Muzaffar Shah, scion of G. M. Shah, the one-time chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir and grandson of the redoubtable Sheikh Abdullah. RN’s hail-fellow-well-met persona and his ability to launch forth into vociferous song held him in good stead in the company which, at that time, rather favoured the ability to hold a glass of whisky over a knowledge of the nuances of steel-making.

While RN was a happy man—others might even have described him as happy-go-lucky—he had a niggling feeling that his life was not playing out against the larger canvases that had given his father’s trajectory its grandeur. For that reason, he saw his time in Chhattisgarh as a challenge and an opportunity to launch himself into his own rarefied atmosphere of courage and sacrifice. He was going to be an apostle bringing the “good news” according to Jamshed Tata to the miserable and the destitute of the state.

RN was soon busy setting up office in his hotel room, scouting for land for a corporate centre and looking for a place that would serve as his home for the next few years. From his talks with government officials, he had concluded that there was so much goodwill for the Tatas that even if they had wanted to wind up and leave, they would not be able to. The district collector of Dantewada, Sanjay Srivastava, was most responsive and Raman Singh’s right-hand man, principal secretary Shivraj Singh, was clearly committed to the project.

In the very first year of the project there was a brouhaha in the Chhattisgarh Assembly over the MOU signed by Tata Steel and the Chhattisgarh government. This was only to be expected, given the blunder the company’s officials were alleged to have made, confusing hectares and acres and, thereby, more than doubling the acreage involved.

“You can verify the terms in my chamber,’” was the chief minister’s offer to his agitated legislators. State government agreements with companies are usually kept confidential, although it is not obligatory that these be classified, except in matters of security and law enforcement. Most MOUs should be accessible through RTI (Right to Information) applications. But those were early years for RTI in India. Meanwhile, the public relied on the time-tested method of leaks.

These leaks indicated that a vast expanse of land—5,000 acres—had been allotted, in principle, to Tata Steel to set up a 5.5 mega-tonne steel plant to be completed forty-eight months from the date of the final clearance. In addition, they were to be given a prospecting licence for an iron-ore mining block, Dantewada 1 in the Bailadila hills (so named because they resemble the hump of a bull), the richest iron reserve in the world. An assurance was given by the government for providing water supply of 25 million gallons a day. The coal requirement would be met from imports. A captive power plant would supply electricity. At the time of signing the MOU in late 2004, the company promised a total investment of over ₹12,000 crores.

The Tatas were granted a prospecting licence (PL) at the very outset, although this is the second stage of the three-stage licencing process for a mine that involves acquiring a reconnaissance permit to begin with and ends after a mining licence has been issued. The PL permits drilling activities necessary for ascertaining the quantity and quality of mineral reserves over a wide area. According to a report in a prominent national daily, soon after the MOU was signed, the government took away control of mines from the Chhattisgarh Mineral Development Corporation (CMDC) and assigned them to the Tatas.

A colleague of Singh had also managed to submit an application for a PL for one of the blocks in Rowghat mine that contains the second-largest iron-ore deposits in Chhattisgarh after Bailadila. They were hopeful, even though other private companies like Nicco Jaiswal and Monet Ispat were in the running.  One fine day, however, Chanakya Chaudhary, Chief Resident Executive, Tata Steel, in New Delhi, told Singh dramatically, “Rowghat bhool jao.” RN was to forget about Rowghat. Obviously, something had not gone right in the confabulations with the central ministries involved.

Meanwhile, a piece of land in Sallepal Barupata only 100 km from the iron-ore mine had been rejected because of the presence of diamond tracts, and after three more sites had been rejected for their proximity to revenue forests, an area in Lohandiguda was identified. The land there was not level, as it had been in Sallepal Barupata, but the undulations would, at least, facilitate the building of water tanks. The problem was the significant forest cover and the need to displace 12,000 to 15,000 people to make way for the plant. Compounding the challenge was the absence of a water source in the vicinity to feed the easily created water tanks.

The Tatas and the government had to convince the local people that building a steel plant there would be in their best interest. Varun Jha, RN’s boss and the director appointed for the Chhattisgarh project, arranged for a well-rehearsed PowerPoint presentation to demonstrate how a steel plant would create a demand for transportation fleets, ancillary industries and supporting services. But the locals did not understand PowerPoint presentations. A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed in the Chhattisgarh high court by Sudip Shrivastava. Apart from the commitment guaranteeing water supply, the points raised included the pre-commitment in the MOU itself of specific mining tracts, the unconditional undertaking to supply costly minerals like limestone and dolomite and the acquisition of land in a scheduled area, without consulting the gram sabhas, as required by the Panchayati Raj Extension to Scheduled Areas Act

The petition filed by Sudip was rejected in the Chhattisgarh high court. The court observed that the petitioner’s apprehensions were “premature”, compelling Shrivastava to move the Supreme Court. It was only in January 2013 that the PIL would be admitted in the high court, after the Supreme Court had asked Shrivastava to raise the issues again before the high court. But despite a legal respite, the image of the Tatas suffered a blow in early 2006, when newspapers started flashing the news of a catastrophic episode at Tata Steel’s proposed 6-million-tonne-per-annum steel plant in Kalinganagar, Odisha. On the very day that Tata Steel was taking possession of land allotted to them for setting up the plant, a group of locals, armed with bows and arrows and pickaxes, had turned up to register their protest and been fired upon by the police, resulting in the death of fourteen protesters and one policeman.

R. N. Singh decided to seek the help of the area’s legislators. He recalls that all of them happened to go by the name of Kashyap, reflecting the success of Hindu proselytisers in the area. More to the point, all were from the BJP, the ruling party that was avowedly behind the project. However, none was willing to stick his neck out.

In RN’s presence, they acknowledged the sound reputation of the Tatas, Kalinganagar notwithstanding, but regretted their inability to help. “Aap toh theek hain,” they said, “we don’t have a problem with you. Administration ka kya karunga? Logon se kya kahoonga? ( How do we handle this administration and explain ourselves to the locals? Jungle-wale log aayenge toh unse kya kahoonga?” ( If the forest dwellers [the Maoists] turn up, what explanation do we offer them?)

Meanwhile, the Congress legislators were smiling smugly at the harried Singh. “Yahaan se clearance mil bhi jaye, lekin Centre ki permission kaise layenge?” they told him. (Even if you manage permission from here, how do you propose to get it from the Centre?) The central government was run by a different coalition and would, the regional leaders warned, oppose the state’s ambitions.

After much cajoling, Lachchuram Kashyap, BJP MLA from Chitrakoot, offered to arrange for Singh to meet a group of villagers. Accompanied by Kashyap, RN and a few of his associates were driven to a village in the MLA’s jeep. They reached a village chaupal, an all-purpose central square used for weekly markets and festivals alike, where a makeshift podium had been constructed. About 150 people, mainly women and children, had gathered there. It was 11 a.m. It was likely that at that hour, the menfolk were busy indulging their daily habit of consuming sulphi, the local brew.

Kashyap began to speak. “The Tatas want to work in this area,” he announced. “If you all consent to it, the work can begin. Mr Singh here is a senior executive of the company. If you have questions, he is ready to answer them.” Before RN could speak up, he was assailed by a volley of wails, slogans and shrieks. Speaking in Halbi, their native tongue, the women screamed, “Go on, slit our throats! Kill us! Slaughter our children, if you must, but we are not leaving our land!”

Singh attempted to pacify them. “We will work for your benefit,” he assured them. “You will be given new land [to compensate] for the land you give up. You will get jobs.” But the raucous mob of agitated young mothers was implacable, refusing to be won over. “I realised this was not the moment to speak of plant capacity and backward linkages,” RN says now. “Besides, I did not want to linger long enough to make my defeat official. I sped away with the remains of my somewhat tattered dignity. Perhaps, I could have tried one of my songs. It might have worked better.”

While I am sure a soulful Bollywood ballad could work wonders even in Bastar, I know as much as RN does that this particular problem is not about to be resolved so easily.

While the legislators were busy acting coy, one person was totally bullish on the Tata project. RN had heard about him long before they met. He seemed to be that kind of a person—someone people knew of, even before he knew them. His name was Mahendra Karma.

Karma’s name had been coming up frequently in RN’s conversations with all kinds of people. He was said to have a considerable following among the tribal population. Although he was a member of the Congress, the opposition party in the state, and not even a legislator at that time, he seemed to be on very good terms with the government.

RN was first introduced to him at the district collector’s office in Jagdalpur, where a meeting of panchayat representatives had been convened to discuss the Tata project. Karma arrived in a government-owned helicopter, was greeted with lusty cheers and immediately launched into an impassioned advocacy of the project. He was nothing if not determined to remove all obstacles that lay in the way. “Tata kaise nahin aayega?” (How will the Tatas not come) he declared confidently. “What can stop the Tatas? If they are turned back, it will have to be over my dead body. Yes, I oppose this government, but not on this issue.”  “You cast a spell (on your audience),” RN told Karma.  “Arre nahin, Singh Saheb,” (Not at all, Singh Saheb) said Karma, “These people insist that I come here and speak to them.”

We did not seem to be making any progress in getting across to the tribals. Neither the local MLA nor the district collector was of any help. Most of the journalists were only interested in free booze.

Karma’s was a voice that brooked no dissent. Even the insurgents, it seemed, would have to bow down before his indomitable will. I ask RN about his impressions of the man. “He had a way with people,” Singh tells me. “He would grab hold of them, abuse them and yet, it seemed, he was able to get across to them.  I think he liked me. “Chaliye, Singh Saheb, chai peetey hain,” he would say, grabbing me by the arm. (Let’s go and have some tea.)  He was a volcanic personality; small, but powerfully built, with an unending repertoire of safari suits. He had a fleet of Mahindra Scorpio cars, direct access to the chief minister and a permanent entourage, consisting exclusively of the well-read, public-school types.

“We did not seem to be making any progress in getting across to the tribals. Neither the local MLA nor the district collector was of any help. Most of the journalists were only interested in free booze. The chief minister, Raman Singh, had been an acolyte of my father’s, because he was from Pratapgarh, where our family has deep roots. But for some reason, Varun Jha dissuaded me from meeting him. The only ray of hope was Karma.”

According to RN the Tatas had asked Karma if he would serve as their spokesperson and inform the tribals living in areas under Maoist control of their many proposed developmental schemes. Although he fobbed them off in the beginning, Karma eventually put forth a proposal.

“I can send my boys to the interiors to talk to the tribals, Jha Sahab,” he suggested to the director in charge of the Tatas’ Chhattisgarh project, “but they will need to be reimbursed for their travel expenses. They will need to go [to the villages] on scooters and you know the fuel costs these days. “

“How much would they need?’ Jha asked guardedly.

“Not much, just petrol expenses for ten to fifteen vehicles,” Karma replied nonchalantly.  “About three to four lakh rupees a month.”

While repeating the conversation that had taken place, R.N. falls silent, lost in memories. “Did you accept the offer?” I ask breathlessly.  “No,” Singh replies, after a long pause. “We told him that we only paid regular employees through lawful channels. That was the end of the matter, as far as I know. It is quite possible, though, that other companies were paying him.”

Three years of living and working out of a hotel room, without any visible signs of progress, were getting to RN. The government seemed unable to secure the land in Lohandiguda, the head office had made no progress in prospecting operations in Dantewada 1 and talk of building a Tata Centre in Chhattisgarh had fizzled out. Even Singh’s house-hunting efforts were proving to be fruitless, as one good option after another was rejected by his management on some flimsy pretext or the other.

As he went knocking from door to door, everyone had a solution to offer. “Why not start a cancer hospital in Raipur?” a principal secretary to the government suggested.

“Why should I start a cancer hospital in Raipur?” was Jha’s curt response to Singh’s suggestion.

He had evidently not bothered to explore the options that lay between building a gleaming cancer hospital and not building anything at all.

The CSR folks came and went, but it seemed as if the soul was missing from their endeavours. For all practical purposes, if they made any impact at all, it was only on the costs incurred by the company on travel allowance.  “Jamshed Tata’s big plus point,” Singh now says wryly, “was that he did not have a CSR team.”

The one group that Singh had no contact with was the Maoists. “Naxalites, Maoists—I did not see them at all,” he says. “Maybe, they would have come if we had progressed further on the project. In any case, I never felt any threat from them.”

The last nail in the coffin was the sudden parachuting of a contractor into the situation, one who, R.N was told by his top management, would “swing things for us.” The son of a prominent Indian businessman, this contractor did not intend to take things forward from the area of operations, but planned to press buttons from faraway Delhi through “people who mattered”.

Gram sabha clearances would soon be forthcoming through the network of the contractor, if assurances from Singh’s bosses were to be given credence.

Despondent that external entities were being brought in without making more proactive attempts from within, and disappointed that distant levers were being preferred to grassroots advocacy, Singh called his MD. He and Muthuraman were not very far apart in age and RN had always enjoyed a halo over and above his role in the organisation. In any case, as a person who was on a “non-family posting” in a location fraught with risks, he felt he would be given special priority. He was confident he could unburden himself to Muthu and get the Tata charm offensive going to weed out the obstacles in the project.

“Why have you called during my golf game?” was the first question Singh had to field from the MD, whose golfing memories count as among the most precious from his stint in Jamshedpur.

That was the straw that broke RN’s back. He could see nothing of any consequence taking place to propel the project forward. There was little support from the government, but he also felt that his own leadership was not doing enough to facilitate matters. Of course, no one was blaming Singh for the way things stood, but his superiors were also puzzled as to why he seemed unhappy and began implying that he did not quite understand the nature of his job.

I ask Singh if there was something that he, on his part, could have done better. He admits that due to lack of time, he had not been able to acquire the technical knowledge that allows a deeper understanding of mining activities. His daring and marketing skills had allowed him to traverse Maoist-controlled forest terrain to submit the PL application or talk a truculent clerk into giving him the prospecting maps of the area. But some geological knowledge of seams of coal reserves and “s”-shaped coils of hematite deposits might have given him an added advantage, he feels.

His next lapse, according to Singh, was that he did not kick up a shindy when things were not going well. His sense of loyalty prevented him from going over his boss’s head, even when he had become convinced that Varun Jha was mainly interested in securing a smooth sinecure. “I should have bypassed Muthuraman too, if necessary,” he now says ruefully.

Frustrated, he decided to resign from his job with the Tatas, a position most people regard as the acme of success and financial security. “A man does not even consult his wife when he resigns,’ he says. “But I did. And Anshu said, ‘We cannot be happy if you are not happy. Please do not suffer any more for our sake.’”

To make a point, Singh decided not to apply for the company’s Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS), an option that was available to him. “If I had taken VRS,” he explains, “I would not be able to talk as openly as I am talking now. It is not that I have anything against the company. But when things are going wrong, the exemplars of society can either stem the rot or step away. The Tatas have got into the habit of stepping away. I fault them for a lack of courage.”

“When so many people work so hard and have nothing to show for it, there is bound to be a sense of pain. Why did my MD not have the time and commitment vis-à-vis [urgent matters that] his Chief Resident Executive [had brought to his attention]? Why did he not make better use of me? Did he think that I could get everything done because I was from a political family? Then he has no idea at all of the kind of family I come from.”

And then Singh says something that brings to mind the grouse I had heard from Sudip Shrivastava, the activist: “Was the steel project only a ruse to get mining rights for iron ore?”

Excerpted with permission from Blood Red River: A Journey into the Heart of India’s Development Conflict,  published by Hachette India (2016).

(Published in the July 2016 issue)