‘Scientists discover way to convert human hair into high grade fuel’ read the innocuous looking news item tucked away in a corner of the technology pages of my daily newspaper.
At first I didn’t take it seriously and thought it was another self-promoting piece of propaganda from some corporate biotech lab somewhere. Little did I realize this was the beginning of a most bizarre series of events.
If human hair was going to be a valuable commodity in the near or even distant future, every major corporation in the world wanted as much of it as possible. BP, Shell, Exxon-Mobil – announced they were happy that what they had been mining from under the ground all these decades could be replaced by something on top of everyone’s head.
Joining them in the race for ‘strategic control’ of human hair were the mining giants De Beers, BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, while Indian multinationals like Reliance, Tata and the Mittal group demanded the government declare Indian hair be reserved solely for domestic companies.
If corporations sought it so much, politicians naturally wanted to become their middlemen, mortgaging their country’s annual output of hair. The Indian government rushed to declare hair as ‘state property’, banning all barbers from practising their profession and directing citizens to have their haircuts in designated ‘inlets’. Cabinet ministers were exempted, but several turned up in Parliament with logos of global corporations proudly stamped across their bald pates. After all these days one is known only by the company that keeps you and not by the company you keep.
Bollywood began churning out different, spiced up Indian versions of the Goldilocks tale, remixing old songs like ‘Teri zulfon se judai tho nahin mangi thi…" with a brand new meaning to them. Movie stars, even if they did not have much hair, started hiring ‘hairguards’ to protect their precious wigs and public image.
The hysterical media typically ran hair raising stories in a bid to keep the corporations tickled, all of course done in the name of ‘pubic …er I mean public interest’. Some wrote editorials claiming India would now definitely become the world’s biggest superpower since Indians had more facial and body hair than the Chinese, who despite their larger population had less to harvest. The Americans and Europeans, they opined, were neither ‘hair nor there’.
The Mumbai underworld moved into the hair business with the notorious Dawood Ibrahim announcing from Dubai that he would pay a million dollars to anyone who could get him all of his rival Chota Rajan’s locks on a platter. Bal Thackeray said in a Saamna editorial that his father had wisely named him ‘Bal’ as he knew that hair would be valuable in the future. His nephew Raj vowed not to let even a single Marathi hair fall outside its ‘mother’ province and advised all his followers to carry nets with them all the time.
Elsewhere, in UP and Bihar, criminal gangs organised ‘hair hunting’ expeditions where they would go shaving hapless citizens at gunpoint. Global corporations started outsourcing the task of collecting hair to these gangs – keeping with the logic that Indian goons were far cheaper to hire than American ones.
It was at this point of my nightmare that I woke up writhing in imaginary pain, clutching my head and screaming, ‘No! This is my hair! It can’t be converted into high-grade fuel. Nobody has the right to take it away! "
My hair though was happily intact and I found myself in a guest house in Ersama, a small settlement of betel leaf and paddy farmers in coastal Orissa. I had been in this province now for a week to write about the struggle of local farmers to prevent the South Korean steel giant POSCO from taking away their valuable land to build an integrated power and steel plant.
I realized the ‘hair nightmare’ I had was really provoked by what was happening in Orissa with its mineral riches, in particular iron ore, of which the state possessed some of the biggest deposits in the world and that too of very high quality. The soaring price of iron ore around the world in recent years has sparked off a rush of corporations to the state.
Over the past five years the Orissa government has signed over 40 MoUs worth around Rs 1,60,132 crores with global and domestic companies, selling off rights to the over 20 billion tonnes of iron ore believed to be under the feet of the Oriya people. ( Much of the state’s population is anaemic or else the Orissa regime of Naveen Patnaik would have sold the iron content in the people’s blood also by now!)
In its deal with POSCO alone Orissa has given away the company, rights to mine 600 million tonnes over the next 30 years or so. POSCO will pay just Rs 24 per tonne as royalty at a time when global prices have shot up over Rs 2,400 per tonne, a difference that will cost the public exchequer over 1.4 trillion rupees!! This is apart from all the other sops, worth billions, given to POSCO in the form of cheap land, water, tax breaks and so on.
On paper the POSCO project is supposed to bring in US$12 billion worth of investments. Industry analysts will tell you though its real purpose in entering into the MoU is part of the strategy of global corporations of keeping different commodities they need under their control before they dwindle away or get poached by rivals. Grab now use later is the motto.
The Orissa scenario is being played out in other states too. India is also the sixth largest producer of steel in the world with production touching 45 million tonnes in 2005 but this will jump to over103 million tonnes soon thanks to the 102 MoUs signed with steel companies around the country. India is the fourth largest producer of iron ore in the world with its production touching 165 million tonnes per annum in 2005, of which over 90 million tonnes was exported abroad- so a lot of this mining is still about old colony-style export of raw material to developed nations.
As for the social impact, since most of the iron ore is found under land belonging to tribal communities they will suffer the most due to the displacement, pollution and distress caused by the mining process. The steel production facilities will also take away valuable agricultural land and displace thousands of farmers, like in the case of POSCO where the proposed plant will oust 30,000 people in Ersama block of Orissa’s Jagatsinghpur district. Besides all this will be the vast quantities of power and water that steel production requires, that can be supplied only by taking it away from other sectors that need it more.
Reflecting on the madness of Orissa’s fire sale of its mineral resources and replacing the words ‘iron’ or ‘steel’ by ‘hair’ I realized my nightmare had not been so far fetched after all.
I mumbled ‘Mairay Pochchu’ in Tamil and went back to sleep hoping to dream of a day when someone finds out that the livers of politicians and corporate CEOs, if consumed in pill form, could be a sure cure for not just baldness but also erectile dysfunction.
Satya Sagar is a journalist, writer and videomaker based in New Delhi. He can be reached at [email protected]