Mandi Gobindgarh, Punjab: Local fables credit Mandi Gobindgarh’s alias ‘loha mandi’ to a 17th century battle between a Sikh saint and a local ruler. Tales tell that a paucity of iron and metal for emergency horseshoe repairs in the 1600s war instigated the saint to bless the town with “iron that will never run out”.
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Iron now runs this town. With more than 500 medium and small sized steel and iron scrap recycling industries, Gobindgarh is still one of India’s largest secondary steel producing areas.
Discard from practically all around the world lands up in this small town of about 150,000 people. The approach road to the town is dotted with chimneys and tin sheds amid lush green fields, while truckloads of junk, from old train wheels to car parts and defunct machines finish their last journey at Mandi.
Around 150 induction furnaces in Gobindgarh work day and night for five days a week to churn out thick slabs of iron called ingots, which go on to feed re-rolling mills. These mills employ thousands of migrant labourers everyday, who manually swing and shape gleaming red ribbons of steel into final products. With practically a zero margin for human error, labourers mainly from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar toil near furnaces, which reach upto 1,600 degrees of heat. The brutal conditions in the factories ensure that the labour force nearest to the furnaces get an hour’s break after each hour.
An hour in any of these factories and you will find your skin tinged with a persistent layer of black carbon. Outside labourers lounge with blackened faces, not bothering to try to scrub it away. Lorries lumber past, many from Gujarat, which bring in thousand ton ships, whittled down to manageable pieces.
Town traders and factory owners, however, beg for iron of a different kind; the kind that makes train tracks. “When businessmen come here, they have to get off at the next town as we don’t have a big one. It is a little embarrassing,” said a factory owner.