Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Sparks Will Fly: The dark and magical world of steel manufacturing

Refeatured from The Scribbler

(Any mistakes are mine!)

India's railway system was built on iron ore brought in from Middlesborough, England in the mid-19th century. Today, most of the iron and coal used in the railways comes from within India, processed in small factories like my grand uncle's. Here's a look at what goes on inside one of them.

Many of these factories are not mammoth structures far away in the suburbs, but small enterprises set up in forgotten nooks in the city. They have stood there, unchanged for years. And except for the thick, dark smoke billowing from them, you'd never know they were there.

We take a ride to one of them owned by my grand-uncle in Jalandhar.

When we reach, iron ore extraction is in full steam. It's been cool outside because of the rains, but as soon as we enter the factory, we are hit by an unending sauna of smoke-steam and the collective vaporising sweat of the twenty-odd men who work there. They do this all day, every day.

My grand-uncle explains to us the runnings of the plant - a pipe-manufacturing unit he has run for over thirty years. The process is far from the sanitised, white coat assembly line process we're used to seeing on the Discovery Channel. And I have to remind myself that the process of taking something from the earth is not quite pristine.

First, the iron ore is extracted from the ground. The molten ore is purified by smelting it with coal in a blast furnace, and the impurities are filtered off as slag.

To aid the process of smelting, large lumps of coal are sieved briskly through a mesh. The coal dust that gathers is melted with the iron in a blast furnace to purify it.

The purified ore, which is dense but not quite strong, is then cooled to carry to an oxygenating furnace, where the addition of oxygen will turn it into steel.

Most of the workers here are weekly wage earners. Their contracts mean that they earn relatively low wages for long, hard physical labour. It is too warm for body-covering uniform, but labour laws don't require them to wear protective covering, and when asked, they refuse it anyway. The absence of stringent laws and such industry-wide practices mean that as in most of South Asia, labour here is cheap, at a grim cost to their own health.

The oxygenating furnace is manned by a boy who carefully monitors the temperature inside the furnace and feeds cool iron ore in to temper the mixture. It is part science, part art.

He uses his hands to tell the temperature of the furnace, knowing just when to stop, start, and add more ore.

As the oxygen is introduced, sparks fly. But he doesn't flinch. It's business as usual around here.

He pours the now molten steel into a vat.

The purified molten steel is then poured into moulds to cool into pipes.

These are then unmoulded, collected, and sent off for finishing. Workers are paid according to the weight of the pieces they process, so time spent sitting and waiting is usually a luxury. Here, however, he has to wait till the next batch comes in before he can move the pieces over.

In the finishing room, the pieces are first trimmed broadly, then passed on to the final finisher.

The final finisher then runs each piece through a blade and polishing system to take off any rough edges, then throws them in a box with the others. The room is lit by a single lightbulb, but he has passed enough pieces to not really need to see what he is doing.

The piece is finally complete.

A final word: there are many factories like one this all over India. My grand-uncle has run his for thirty years and though business is running well, he tells us that the process itself hasn't changed quickly. Nor have the legal industrial safety and well-being requirements. Factory workers earn decently compared to other industries, but aren't unionised enough to be aware of, or call for change in these regulations.

Soon, his son will take over the factory fully, and India's newly elected government will be more interested in employment laws. 
Hopefully, more change is swiftly on its way.

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