India’s finest iron ore deposits rise abruptly from the forest floor — 32 km of undulating massiveness, four km wide and over 1,260 metres above sea level at its highest point. From the densely wooded plains of Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district, its swelling shape resembles an ox’s hump, prompting the tribes who have lived under its shadow for centuries to name it ‘Bailadila’.
But Bailadila also represents the dangerous intersection between India’s emergent resources sector and the bloody Naxal movement in an area that is probably the strongest fort of the ultra-Left insurgency today — the erstwhile Bastar district. Predictably, doing business here isn’t easy.
Since the 1970s, the National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC), now India’s largest iron ore producer and exporter, has successfully exploited Bailadila’s 1,200 million tonnes of high-grade reserves. Yet, despite a presence that predates the arrival of the Naxals into these parts, today, NMDC is forced to contend with the insurgents to mine the jewel in its ore-studded crown.
“The security threat is our biggest challenge here,” says L B Singh, general manager of NMDC’s Bacheli complex, one of the two outposts from where mining operations in Bailadila are controlled. A personal security detail waits outside his wood-panelled office.
Ten years ago, Singh approximates, NMDC spent only a few lakh rupees each month to secure Deposit 5, 10 and 11A, which are managed from Bacheli. Today, the miner must expend Rs 1.5-2 crore every month to pay for the 551 Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) troops stationed here.
More boots on the ground, even with better weaponry, however, is unlikely to make a significant difference. The three hilltop deposits above Bacheli are spread over an area of about 45 sq km, with dense forests in between, through which conveyor belts and narrow roads have been laid. The CISF presence is noticeable — at checkpoints, atop watchtowers and inside their barbed-wire compounds on the hillsides. But more often than not, their isolated presence makes them the target for Naxal guns.
On May 13, six CISF troops, along with their civilian driver, were ambushed and killed at neighbouring Kirandul, the other NMDC outpost at Bailadila. In June 2011, four policemen had died there in a similar attack. In 2006, eight CISF men were shot dead and tonnes of explosives looted from a magazine in nearby Hiroli. The same year, the Bacheli complex’s main conveyor belt was attacked and burnt, resulting in production being impacted for weeks.
“In spite of all the security, if they (Naxals) are determined (to cause damage), then we are helpless,” Singh explains. “But NMDC employees are not touched, only the CISF troops. We still get 5,000 applications for 100 advertised positions. People are not afraid (to work here), since they don’t target us.”
Apart from environment and forest clearances, analysts have flagged the Naxal threat as the biggest challenge for NMDC’s expansion in the Bailadila range. It is of consequence, as the miner alone produces close to 13 per cent of India’s total iron ore output, of which the Bailadila projects contribute 76 per cent.
The Naxal impact on NMDC’s dispatch system here is substantial. In June 2009, insurgents blew up a section of the 267-km Essar pipeline that carried iron ore slurry from a beneficiation plant at Bailadila to its pellet plant at Visakhapatnam. “The disruption halted 56,000 tonnes of iron ore the company shipped each day on the sector,” stated a report last year by financial services firm IIFL.
Singh admits as much, pointing out the discontinuation of dispatches through the slurry pipeline has put more pressure on the railway system used to evacuate ore from the mines. On an average, 12 rakes are utilised daily for evacuation, on a railway line that has seen no expansion in recent years. About 99 per cent of dispatches are carried out through railways, with trucks accounting for the rest.
“Doubling work on the railway line has started and some wagon capacity has also been increased, but it is impossible for Bailadila to expand without more railway capacity,” says Singh. The Naxal threat is slowing this, too.
But for all the challenges NMDC faces in Chhattisgarh’s Naxal territory, senior district officials in Dantewada are mystified about the pattern of attacks at the company’s facilities in the area. “There is a definite trend, since NMDC employees are never attacked or threatened,” an official, on condition of anonymity, says, “A company here may not directly interact with Naxals, but it can do so through its contractors and transporters.”
Singh, however, is steadfast in his denial about any dealings with Naxals. “We don’t deal with Naxals. In fact, we don’t know who is one and who isn’t, and we have never got any demands from them.”
There may be no demands, but the very presence of the red army is hobbling work of the miners of central India’s red earth.