Cosmopolitan Values in a Central
Indian Steel Town
This chapter focuses on the 'demotic cosmopolitanism' of public sector industrial workers in the central Indian steel town of Bhilai.1 The Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP), a government undertaking, was constructed in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the fraternal aid of the 'anti-imperialist' Soviet Union on a greenfield site in the 'backward' rural region of Chhattisgarh. An icon of the post-Independence nationalist development project, BSP was intended as a 'beacon' for India's industrial future. It was one of Nehru's 'temples' to modernity. Along with its captive mines, by the mid-1980s it had some 65,000 employees on its direct pay roll. The chill wind of economic liberalisation has since blown and that figure now stands at around 35,000. A majority are provided with quarters in the company township, but a significant proportion lives in the sea of urban sprawl that surrounds it. Surrounding it, too, are hundreds of smaller-scale private sector factories for which the plant provided a magnet. Originally ancillary to BSP, some have grown into substantial concerns that supply a global market.
For reasons discussed in detail elsewhere (Parry 2007), the local peasantry were initially reluctant recruits to the BSP labour force, and the plant and its township were built largely by long-distance migrants drawn from almost every corner of the country. Many put down permanent roots in Bhilai, now proudly described as a 'mini-India' in which people of different regions and religions rub along together in tolerant cosmopolitan amity. Almost the opposite is suggested, however, by stereotypical accounts of the fear and awe with which the local villagers regarded these strangers who flooded the area in the early years of the plant. 'Xenophobia', with its connotations of aggressive and irrational hatred, is perhaps too strong, but many undoubtedly felt swamped and displaced — which is what many literally were. Land from 96 villages was compulsorily purchased to construct the new complex. Whole villages disappeared without trace under industrial plant or township quarters and amenities. Others lost only their arable and wasteland, and their rump residential sites became slum-like labour colonies