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Ranchi, Jharkhand. 2016

As Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York, reminded the world yesterday in his daily briefing (streamed live by the Washington Post and New York Times), Coronavirus does not discriminate. It will come after anyone and everyone. And this will impact everything, literally, everything in the world as we know it.

It is this transition that interests me — transitioning from understanding the impact on human lives (which is being rather well documented by news agencies globally), to beginning to understand the impact on the physical constructs which most of us are divorced from at the moment. Clearly, the physical world we have created is of immense value — like a garden where humanity grows — hence the pain incurred by our uprootion (the act of being up-rooted) is severe.

Let us look to Ranchi (see photo above), the capital of Jharkhand, in Eastern India. I flew into Ranchi in 2016, en route to Hazaribagh, while working on (ironically) the design for a hospital project. The design was never realized, but I did manage to add a slew of Ranchi aerial photographs to my archives.

The wild reality of Coronavirus is that one can study any aerial photograph, identify a building / place, anywhere in India, and it will very very likely have a Coronavirus story. For example — in the center of this Ranchi aerial photo from 2016 is a complex of buildings with zig zag roofs — the Research & Development Centre for Iron & Steel SAIL (Steel Authority of India Limited). Sensing a rabbit hole, I chased the question — what is the impact of Coronavirus on steel production in India?

But before answering that question, a reminder: steel is all around us. It is the skeletal system in most of the buildings in urban India (in the form of rebar — concrete adds strength, and acts like a protective skin for the rebar skeletal system). Steel is found in car and train parts, and in kitchen appliances. Steel is the primary structural member in many bridges, such as the iconic construct that is Howrah Bridge (1943) in Calcutta. In other words, steel is all around us, literally.

To make a long answer short, steel production in India is down to 30% of India’s national capacity, and operations at the SAIL property in Ranchi have been “rationalized.”

Here is the problem: in many plants (but not in this Ranchi image), steel is produced in a blast furnace. A blast furnace is a beast of a creature, lined internally with refractory bricks. One could even say a blast furnace has “guts of steel”, although not literally as the steel component of the 30 meter high structure is external. Once the beast is up and running, it is expected to function actively for up to a decade, without any stops, a marathon of sorts. And once it is up and running, one must continue to feed raw material (iron oxides) for melting into liquid steel. So herein lies the dilemma:

Iron Oxides come form the earth — out of mines — and on account of the lockdown, local police are not allowing many vehicles to ply on the nations roads.

But the blast furnace beast is running, is hungry, and demands to be fed or the system will trip (probably explode is my guess). So steel makers have to ration the raw material they already have, feeding the bare minimum to keep the system going — a diet of sorts.

So steel continues to be produced, but the problem is, once produced, where does the material go? Police are stopping many vehicles from plying on the road, so the material piles up in the factory. And even if some material did make it to the open market, there will not be any buyers as everyone is in lockdown!

So some steel firms are taking the dramatic step of shutting down some blast furnaces — such as JSW at their plant in Vijaynagar where one blast furnace is / will soon be shut down.

And the steely powers that be anticipate, if the lockdown is extended further, production may reduce further, down to even as low as 5% or 0% of the national capacity.

The followup questions are many: once the lockdown is raised, which will kick start sooner — the global demand for steel, or the blast furnaces producing them? Will miners return from their villages to the mines? Will transport drivers return from their villages, defying all the whatsapp induced fears they may now have of the world at large. Will factory workers return to the shop floor?

Andrew Cuomo was right (in his briefing yesterday): once this is over, and at some point it will be, the world needs to ask itself, what does it mean to have a Resilient Economy? This type of event will happen again. And clearly, we are not ready as a society, or as a global economy. It is this tight web of technology, material, and humanity that make the world tick, and they are not in a resilient synergy, the system is not in synergy.

This is an exciting question, and a welcome mental diversion from the current, but temporary, bad news seeming to overwhelm the world.

What does it mean to have a Resilient Economy?

PS: Even if he never runs for president, I support Andrew Cuomo for president.

Written by

Robert Stephens

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