JSW chairman Sajjan Jindal and ArcelorMittal president Aditya Mittal arrived in Odisha recently within 24 hours of each other. Both are chasing long-term commitments in the eastern state, albeit in contrasting styles as mineral-rich Odisha continues to hold promise for the Indian steel industry.

JSW has acquired Bhushan Power and Steel’s 3.5 mtpa (million tonnes per annum) plant in Odisha through insolvency resolution. The steelmaker says it is committed to setting up a 10 million tonne capacity plant in the coastal district of Jagatsinghpur. More importantly, through the recently concluded auction of mineral licences, JSW has secured four new mines with a combined capacity of 27.7mtpa and reserves of more than a billion tonnes to feed its pan-India ambitions.

ArcelorMittal chose to make less aggressive final offers, winning mining rights to just one of the 19 working mines–the 5.5mtpa Thakurani deposit. A decade and a half after entering India, the world’s largest steelmaker finally acquired a production presence through its acquisition of the insolvent Essar Steel in a 60-40 partnership with Nippon Steel. Not far from JSW’s proposed greenfield plant, at Paradip, stands Essar’s pellet plant, linked by a slurry pipeline to a beneficiation unit in Odisha’s iron ore districts.

Last week, Aditya Mittal flew to Bhubaneswar, hopped into a chopper and visited the new mine and the nearby beneficiation plant, say those in the know. Accompanied by his senior management, he made a discreet visit to Paradip the next day. There were no other external meetings. Sanjay Sharma of ArcelorMittal India Ltd (AMIL), who’s CEO for India and China, dropped in at the state secretariat but that too went largely unregarded. An Arcelor-Mittal Nippon Steel (AMNS) spokesperson did not respond to an email seeking confirmation of the visit.

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Jindal arrived the following morning and kicked off his engagements with a visit to the Jagannath temple in Puri. Returning to Bhubaneswar, he met chief minister Naveen Patnaik–they both tweeted about it later– and also the chief secretary, the development secretary and the secretary, steel and mines.

A meeting with influential Jajpur MLA, Pranab Prakash Das, was followed with a visit to the residence of Biju Janata Dal (BJD) minister Raghunandan Das, who introduced him to a few people from the neighbourhood of JSW’s proposed greenfield project.

Jindal, whose aggressive bidding puts merchant mining at a disadvantage, also had a conversation with an incumbent miner whose leases were being auctioned. Amid this packed schedule, he managed to accommodate a request from a local businessman who had tracked him down in Puri to inaugurate his new steel shop.

Odisha’s contribution to Indian steel has been overshadowed by its failure to regulate mining or take advantage of an unprecedented commodity boom in 2004-15 for sustained industrial growth. Despite its best efforts, the government could not save what was proposed to be India’s largest foreign direct investment (FDI) project, a Rs 52,000 crore steel plant by South Korea’s Posco. “The industrial environment wasn’t ready–Posco was too foreign a company that did not understand the business culture here,” said a former employee now working with an Indian steelmaker.

At around the same time, in 2006, Laksmi Mittal had signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Odisha government, one of his earliest agreements for entry into India. This project too didn’t materialise.

Steering a successful transition to a new regime of mineral licences, Patnaik’s government can finally bury those failed Mo-Us. Both steelmakers remain equally committed, said Odisha industry secretary Hemant Sharma. A special taskforce has been set up for AMNS as it has for JSW.

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Sharma’s team went to Delhi to meet ArcelorMittal and assure it that the business environment in Odisha has changed.

“As a result of this, their CEO, India, China had come here last week,” he said. “We have told them, there is a plan to set up a steel plant that Essar had for us, and we believe that it should now be their (AM/NS) plan.”



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