Jamshedpur: Jawaharlal Sharma has been stirring the pot for 30 years and, even at 74, he remains just as dedicated to the cause as he was when he started out in 1988. A rights activist, Sharma has been fighting Tata Steel Ltd and the state government of Jharkhand (Bihar previously) for the creation of a municipal body to take over the civic infrastructure in Jamshedpur. The Supreme Court reacted to Sharma’s latest public interest litigation (PIL) filed on 13 July, asking the Jharkhand state government and Tata Steel to respond. At least for now, this battle seems to be heading for a denouement. Jamshedpur, as we have known it for almost 90 years, may change forever.

As things stand, Jamshedpur Utilities and Services Co., or Jusco, a subsidiary of Tata Steel Ltd, has control over all civic amenities in Jamshedpur: road, power, water, sewage and solid waste management, spread over almost 14,500 acres.

Even as he admits that Jusco has done a decent job, Sharma says citizens should have a say in the expansion and maintenance of civic infrastructure—an academic argument, according to his detractors. Pointing at a settlement of janitors tucked behind leafy boulevards in Kadma, an upscale neighbourhood, Sharma says the development of Jamshedpur has not been equitable. There are many such slums and settlements where living conditions are horrible, he complains.

“But you don’t normally get to see them," he says, adding that Tata Steel presents to the world a “curated image" of Jamshedpur, but there’s a lot more lurking behind the tony neighbourhoods of plush bungalows. For the development to be equitable, elected representatives should be at the helm of civic utilities, he argues.

A bit of history is necessary here: in 2004, Jusco was spun off into a separate enterprise from Tata Steel’s town services division, which had the mandate under a lease agreement with the state to build and maintain civic infrastructure in Jamshedpur. The arrangement is rooted in history dating back to 1904 when geologist P.N. Bose unearthed a storehouse of iron ore and coal in the close proximity of today’s Jamshedpur. From 1907, when Tata Iron and Steel Co. Ltd (Tisco) was incorporated, the region started to witness transformation. It wasn’t even a one-horse town when the factory at Jamshedpur started to produce ingots in 1912.

By 1929, Tisco, later renamed Tata Steel, took under its ownership 15,449 acres from the provincial government under British rule, and along with it the responsibility to build the necessary ecosystem to support a large steel factory. By the early 1980s, restrictive laws on the ownership of land had been promulgated, forcing Tata Steel to grudgingly cede control of most of its landed property in Jamshedpur. The state government of Bihar eventually leased most of the town to Tisco in 1984, but only after a protracted legal battle.

Sharma, who lives in a spacious two-storey house in the middle-class neighbourhood of Sonari, has often been questioned for his motivation and means to keep up the fight. His father used to work at Tisco, but he himself ran a small business. Dependent on the Tata group for orders, Sharma shut his enterprise when he started to cross swords with Tisco bosses.

Supported early on by his wife who was a school teacher, he has had top lawyers such as Ram Jethamalani and Prashant Bhusan appearing for him in the Supreme Court. But he claims they have fought for his cause pro bono. Still, it wasn’t easy to gather the resources to keep fighting. Now his daughter, who is a lawyer in Mumbai, has signed a blank cheque for him, he says.

People have alleged that Sharma is a front for bargain-hunting politicians, sniffing opportunities for themselves, if a civic body were to be created for Jamshedpur. But even his hardest detractors at Tata Steel do not question his bona fide. He himself is critical of politicians: had there been the political will, he wouldn’t have had to fight this fight for so long, he says.

Over the past three decades, Sharma has had numerous run-ins with intrepid Tisco bosses, such as Russi Mody, and former Tata Steel MD and Tata Sons director J.J. Irani, but he wouldn’t stand down. “It’s difficult to reason with him," says Bailey Bodhanwala, a local entrepreneur, who is the second generation in his family who did business with the Tata group in Jamshedpur and made the town his home.

The brigade opposed to Sharma’s idea points at Jamshedpur’s suburbs, which are not under Jusco. They dread the town being turned into another Adityapur, Jugsalai or Mango. Only a few months ago, the Jharkhand government had managed to create a civic body in Adityapur, hold elections and put it under the helm of elected representatives. The two other suburbs are still run by bureaucrats.

Vendors of Tata Motors Ltd based in Adityapur would burn gallons and gallons of diesel to meet delivery commitments, says Suresh Sonthalia, a businessman and the president of the Singhbum Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Jusco has now been allowed to enter Adityapur as the second power utility, and people are switching from the state-owned distributor to shore up profitability, he says. In comparison, Jamshedpur has almost zero outage.

“Why not lift the standards in these suburbs to the level of Jamshedpur before disrupting things in Jamshedpur?" asks Bodhanwala. Clearly, in Jharkhand, politicians have a long way to go to earn people’s trust when it comes to running civic bodies. However, Sharma didn’t pick up the fight out of thin air. At least three attempts have been made to create a civic body in Jamshedpur, the first dating back to 1967. Faced with resistance from Tisco, the state gave up the idea in 1973, according to Sharma’s latest petition in the apex court. After he came into the picture in 1988 and won a favourable verdict, a notification was issued by the Bihar government in 1990 for creation of a civic body for Jamshedpur.

The late Mody, then chairman and managing director of Tisco, had at that time famously said he would take on the state administration and the judiciary by the horns to prevent Jamshedpur from being overrun by elected representatives.

The third attempt was made in December 2005, when the state government of Jharkhand issued another notification expressing its intention to turn Jamshedpur into a municipality.

Each time, the state yielded to popular pressure and stalled the process. But there was no stopping the dogged Sharma, whose intervention eventually got Tata Steel and the state government of Jharkhand to agree in 2016 to turn Jamshedpur into a so-called industrial township. The two made a statement to that effect in the Supreme Court.

Two years on, Sharma started to dig again. He filed an application under the Right to Information Act asking the Jharkhand government if it had reached any agreement with Tata Steel over turning Jamshedpur into an industrial township.

Even if that were to happen, Jusco would not have been disbanded—only its autonomy would be partially diluted. It would have to work on the watch of a panel with representatives from the state government.

In April, the Jharkhand government, in response to Sharma’s application, said it had not struck any deal with Tata Steel to turn Jamshedpur into an industrial township. Feeling short-changed, Sharma moved the Supreme Court again alleging that Tata Steel and the Jharkhand government had misled the judiciary. On 13 July, the court, while admitting Sharma’s petition, ordered the steel maker and the state government to respond to the allegations.

In Sharma’s view, turning Jamshedpur into an industrial township will not help address the need for equitable growth. It works in towns with smaller population of a few thousand people—not in Jamshedpur with a population approaching a million people, according to Sharma.

Tata Steel claims the area under Jusco’s control has a population of around 700,000, of which 200,000 are employed with it or have taken permanent residence along with their families, post-retirement.

“I don’t think I am going to settle anywhere outside Jamshedpur after I retire," says Ritu Raj Sinha, head of corporate administration at Tata Steel. He plays golf at a course opposite his home; work is only five minutes away.

Sinha, who closely oversees the operations of Jusco, says delivery of services requires expertise and Tata Steel has honed it with decades of experience.

Jusco suffers a loss—or under-recovery in technical parlance—of 250 crore a year from services it provides in Jamshedpur, according to Sinha.

“We owe it to our people and the town," he says, boasting that people in Jamshedpur drink tap water and are charged the lowest power tariff for comparable reliability anywhere in India.

And such is the scalability of services that Jamshedpur does not face any water shortage or power outage even during peak summers, according to Sinha.

“But you still cannot have an Orwellian arrangement running perpetually," says Ronald DSouza, a third-generation entrepreneur based in Jamshedpur.

His grandfather had arrived from Goa to work for Tisco as a labour contractor. By 1940, the DSouzas had set up Jamshedpur’s first hotel, which is still in operation.

Times have changed, and there is no alternative to allowing citizens have a say in the functioning of Jusco, according to DSouza. “One has to strike a balance, but to say no to change is not correct," he says.

For veterans such as Irani and his wife Daisy, turning Jamshedpur into an industrial township is the only solution. It would ensure the necessary oversight through state representatives, without undermining the operational efficiency of Jusco, says Irani, who after his retirement in 2011, moved back to Jamshedpur where his wife was born and grew up.

“Why not ask the people of Jamshedpur what they want? Why not take a vote?" he asks, exuding confidence that a vast majority of people would vote against turning Jamshedpur into a municipality. But his wife isn’t so convinced, even as she maintains that if the town were to be taken over by elected representatives, Jamshedpur would cease to be the prized abode for Tata Steel and its people.

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