Christian Strümpell, Department of Anthropology, South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University
The Steel Town Rourkela: Frontier of Modernity in the Jungles of Odisha
Steel occupies a pivotal place in India’s national imagination. Steel is an essential requirement for a “modern” economy and without the latter, Nehru and others envisioned, India would be unable to protect herself from the aggressive expansionism of the industrialized world. “Industrialize or perish” was the slogan in India after Independence. Gigantic steel plants were established in the sparsely populated, but mineral-rich hills in central India and owned and managed by the state. Since the local rural population lacked industrial training the steel plants were manned with workforces drawn from all corners of the country that were to be accommodated in newly established planned townships adjacent to the steel plants. Because these places were located in the peripheral “elsewhere” far from the metropolitan centres they offered the postcolonial state the opportunity to realise its vision of a modern, industrial, secular – and back then – also a ‘democratic-socialist’ India from scratch. This vision saw steel plants and townships as “mini-Indias”, as “melting pots” and exemplary sites for the nation’s unity in diversity. All this was supposed to take place in the erstwhile village Rourkela in western Odisha.
The aim of my paper is to provide an ethnographically informed understanding of the manifold dynamics around the processes of nation-building and place-making in the steel town Rourkela. This reveals that Rourkela never was simply an “elsewhere”, but that from the perspective of old workers who had come here to build the steel plant it was a “wilderness” that was to be civilized while for the provincial government it was place that was to be made an integral part of the state of Odisha, and that both agendas remain highly contested by the local, largely ‘tribal’ people who had been displaced for the whole complex in the 1950s.