The Next Page / Pittsburgh and Jamshedpur: Steel cities, a world apart

Awarded a Fulbright grant to study the steel cities of Pittsburgh and his native Jamshedpur, India, Vijay Nair found many similarities. Little wonder, he says, that he feels at home here.


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In 2007, I received a U.S. State Department grant to attend the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Due to unavoidable circumstances, I arrived much later than the 39 other writers from all over the world.

My grant was for three months, but the program ended less than a month after I got to Iowa. The program director suggested that I continue my work in Pittsburgh through the City of Asylum writers organization.

I had traveled to the United States twice before, but Pittsburgh had not been one of the destinations. Yet there was something oddly familiar about Pittsburgh. I felt it as soon as I walked out of Pittsburgh International Airport and found my hosts waiting for me. I suffered from a feeling almost like déjà vu.

While having dinner with my hosts one evening, the coin dropped. They briefly dwelled on the steel history of the city, and I told them excitedly why I had felt at home all along. I was born and raised in Jamshedpur, the city where the first steel mill in India was established a good half-century before India gained freedom from British rule in 1947. My father had worked in that mill, and my parents had raised all five of their children in that steel township. All of us eventually moved to other cities (some even to other countries) to pursue our educations and careers.

I had settled with my wife and son in Bangalore, a city called the Silicon Valley of India because of all the software and technology organizations, many of them global, that have taken root there since the early 1990s. Bangalore is full of swanky malls, unmanageable traffic and brightly dressed young professionals who are as far removed from the uniformed steelworkers in Jamshedpur as any two groups could be.

Getting in touch with my past in a foreign land, amid an alien culture, was exciting and confusing. I started to learn from Pittsburghers how the mill closures of the 1970s and '80s had left behind ghost towns. I wanted to visit some of these towns and walk on their streets. I believed that such an adventure would be nostalgia-inducing and give me ideas for writing.

Unfortunately, personal reasons made me cut short my visit, and I left Pittsburgh in about a month. I carried the yearning with me. I knew I had to get back to the city one day. But once I returned to India, other preoccupations took over. My short visit to Pittsburgh was relegated to a memory.

In February 2011, one of my nonfiction books was launched in the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Bombay. During the event, I met an American writer who received a Fulbright grant to research a book on an Indian saint. I had been under the impression that Fulbrights went only to academicians and researchers, but she told me that the grants are available to writers and artists, too.

Finally, my yearning and opportunity had come together, and I wrote a proposal for a book based on the two steel cities located in different parts of the world -- one long past its glory days of manufacturing and the other undergoing rapid change in a post-liberalization developing economy.

I've lived in Pittsburgh for the past eight months. The grant to research the book has given me the opportunity for professional enrichment and personal closure. The most rewarding part of the journey, however, has been exploring the links between the two cities.

Tata a pioneer like Carnegie

Jamsetji Tata, the pioneering spirit behind Tata Iron and Steel Co., as the first Indian steel manufacturer was christened, attended a lecture by author Thomas Carlyle in Manchester, England, in 1880. The lecture touched at least in part on industrialization. By the end of that trip, Tata was excited by the prospect of setting up a steel plant in India that would compare with the best in the world.

This seemed an impossible dream in a backward, colonized country, which, unlike Western nations, did not have the benefits of the Industrial Revolution. Legend has it that a skeptical Sir Frederick Upcott, chief commissioner of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, promised to "eat every pound of steel rail [the Tatas] succeed in making." Undaunted by that challenge, Tata came to Pittsburgh in the late 19th century to learn the ropes of steelmaking.

On Nov. 18, 1907, The New York Times reported that a company affiliated with Julian Kennedy, a steel-mill builder and one of Andrew Carnegie's executives, had landed a contract to help build the Tata plant. The report predicted a new era of international competition, noting that the cost of steel production in India would be less than half that in America.

By the time the contract was let, Tata -- whom the Times called the "J.P. Morgan of India" -- had died. But his legacy, like Carnegie's, lives on. His heirs ensured that the organization, and the township affiliated with it, reached dizzying heights of glory in post-colonial India.

Much like Carnegie, Tata made visionary statements to demonstrate his humanity and desire to do good for others. He would build a township for employees before the manufacturing facilities got underway. In a letter to his son, often quoted as an enduring testament to Tata's vision, he said, "Be sure to lay wide streets planted with shady trees, every other of a quick-growing variety. Be sure that there is plenty of space for lawns and gardens. Reserve large areas for football, hockey and parks. Earmark areas for Hindu temples, Mohammedan mosques and Christian churches."

In hindsight, the move to build the township appears a shrewd move by a canny businessman to attract workmen from all over India to an area that, although rich in minerals, was in those days little more than wilderness.

The steel industry in Pittsburgh attracted migrants from different parts of Europe. But in India, overpopulated country that it is, there was no dearth of individuals seeking employment in the mills. The migrant workers came from the various Indian states.

Adapting to change

In time, Tata's heirs diversified into enterprises ranging from aviation to hospitality and from chemicals to textiles, but they also would retain their philanthropic bent, investing in academic and research institutions like the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Tata Institute of Social Sciences and cultural spaces like Tata Theater and National Center for Performing Arts.

The Tata family was awarded the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy in 2007. The medal is awarded every two years to individuals and families demonstrating Carnegie's spirit of civic investment.

Today, Tata Group is the largest private-sector company in India, and Tata Steel is one of the largest steelmakers in the world. Tata Steel has manufacturing operations in 26 countries and employs about 81,600 people. In 2007, the company acquired British-Dutch steelmaker Corus in what has been called the largest international acquisition by an Indian company.

But history would not spare Tata Steel and Jamshedpur from the downsides of capitalism. In the late 1990s, in the fallout of an Indian economy opening up to forces of liberalization and globalization, thousands of Tata Steel employees, most of them unskilled workmen, were encouraged to retire with generous compensation packages.

Despite the significant reduction in work force, the city of Jamshedpur continues to thrive. In fact, it recently was ranked the 84th-fastest-growing city in the world.

During the months I spent in Pittsburgh on my Fulbright, I finally had a chance to visit some of the towns devastated by the downturn of Pittsburgh's steel industry.

In some ways, such as the lack of cars on the streets, Homestead and Braddock look much different than the teeming city of Jamshedpur. But I have learned that Pittsburgh has seen an economic resurgence in recent years, thanks to careful cultivation of the education, high-tech and health-care sectors.

I have come to believe that Pittsburgh has a spine made of steel.

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Vijay Nair is a playwright and novelist (vijayiowa@gmail.com). He is working on a book about the Pittsburgh and Jamshedpur steel industries.


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