We, the engineers of the seventies were inspired by the first Steel Mills of Pakistan, inaugurated by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) on December 30, 1973. Spread over an area of 18,660 acres at port Muhammad Bin Qasim outside Karachi, it still is the largest industrial complex of the country. Had it not been due to the protest of the graduating engineers of the class of 1971 at University of Engineering and Technology (UET) Lahore, I would have landed in Moscow for a five year degree programme in Metallurgy. Out of the twenty students selected my position was 18th. In order to appease the engineering graduates, five of them were sent with the original fifteen selected candidates to avail the quota so I was dropped. On return these metallurgists then joined the Steel Mills as technical leads.
Pakistan of the seventies was democratic and vibrant. After enactment of the unanimous 1973 constitution on August 14, Pakistan Steel Mills (PSM) became a reality on December 30 the same year. The merit for admission in Metallurgical Engineering started to rise. Instead of Moscow I completed my degree in Lahore and then proceeded to the United States for graduate studies. In the final year we were required to write a thesis titled, “Developments in the Blast Furnace”. Russians had arrived by then and the furnaces were being erected under their supervision. We visited the site in 1976 which was very impressive. Finally, the elected government of ZAB was able to break the shackles of status-quo to start the basic development of the country for which steel was a required building block.
Pakistan has a requirement of about 5 MTY (Million Tons per Year of Steel) of which PSM was providing about 1.5 MTY. The project was started at the port as it was based on imported raw materials. Both iron ore and coking coal was being imported from Australia. The plan was to gradually move towards use of indigenous ores, with Kalabagh being the largest. Unfortunately, no significant development work was carried out. The project which was once the pride of the country fell on hard times. Finally, on June 10, 2015 the furnaces were shut down when supply of gas was discontinued by Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC). On December 18, 2017, Asad Umar MNA of PTI who is also Chairman of the standing committee on Industry and Production wrote to National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to initiate an inquiry on the closure of the mills. On December 29, 2017 an investigation was initiated.
Mismanagement, loot and plunder of national assets have to be checked. No nation can progress without steel. Despite several natural deposits and existing expertise, the country lags behind in this vital sector. In order to promote indigenous steelmaking, I launched several projects as Chairman Pakistan Science Foundation and Convener Metals and Minerals Committee for the Planning Commission (2000-2005 term). Pilot Scale Plant Studies were started for Direct Reduction of Chiniot, Chichali and Nokkundi Iron Ores, a project was also started to produce Iron from Kalabagh Deposits using the modified Krupp-Renn process. An upcountry steel mill with capacity of 1 MTY based on Chiniot-Rajoa is very feasible and much needed to boost the economy but instead the nation has been repeatedly taken for a ride.
There is evident lack of seriousness in the development of the iron and steel sector in the country. While still in Islamabad I was summoned by the Planning Commission for an expert opinion. The proposal under study had been forwarded by the Alternate Energy Development Board (AEDB). Plan was to shift the Steel Mill on Wind Power and divert the mill’s electricity to the city of Karachi. Coming from the Deputy Chairman, a fellow engineer, I was quite surprised by non-seriousness of the approach. I posed a counter question, was there any Steel Mill in the world running on Wind Power? As the answer was no, PSM was saved.
On January 28, 2018, the Russian Ambassador was in Lahore for an intellectual interaction. After his talk I requested him for his help in the restoration of the Steel Mills . His reply surprised me: ‘We are willing to help but your government is not interested’. It seems there are hidden agendas. Perhaps after the statement of the Ambassador and inquiry of NAB the government has been finally forced to announce the restoration of this vital national asset.
Today (February 04, 2018) a full page advertisement appeared in the press under the heading “Chief Minister’s Vision’. Amongst the listed projects a savings of Rs. 400 billion has been claimed for Chiniot Iron Ore deposits. As a I have been closely involved with this resource, I fail to understand this claim of the Punjab government. The CM should publish details of this assertion. A few years back a show was organized at Chiniot where tall claims were made about the value of this deposit. It was also claimed that copper and gold inclusions were discovered in the ore body, declaring it to be a game changer which it never was.
Since 1977 after the dissolution of the only truly elected assembly it has been downhill for the nation. Lies and more lies has been the approach. While individuals in authority and power have become rich the country and its institutions have suffered with PSM being a prime example of this flawed approach. Restoration work should start without delay to bring Pakistan back on the world map of Steel producing nations. But it should not stop here. Together with indigenization of raw materials for PSM, self sufficiency in steel should also be achieved. Steel is the basic building block of the nation, its production and supply has to be guaranteed for sustainable development of the country.
The writer is Ex-Chairman Pakistan Science Foundation.