Covid-19 casts a new light on steel as rural India provides some succour

China, which continues to make imĀ­pressive economic recovery since late February, has this year been a major destination for Indian steel exports
That rural India, where two-thi­rds of the population live and which has a share of 46 per cent of national income, is a potential big market for steel has always been known. But marketing lethargy and the absence of rural market-specific product development have kept the rural per capita consumption of steel at a fraction of the national average of 76 kg, compared with the world average of 225 kg.

The 2017 steel policy says that, as the ground is laid for the development of a “glo­bally competitive industry,” the Indian per capita steel use will take a leap to 160 kg by 2030. What is left unsaid is how much of the targeted steel production of 230 million tonnes (MT) on a capacity base of 300 MT in a decade will be consumed in rural India.

Who could have thought before the Covid pandemic that rural India would provide some succour to the steel industry, which was allowed to function through the long lockdown but had to keep capacity use at a historical low as demand disappeared. In the first full month of the lockdown in April when Tata Steel, the country’s largest steelmaker on its acquisition of Bhusan Steel and Usha Martin long products mill, ran its blast furnaces at around 50 per cent capacity, it fell back on exports for over 80 per cent of production and for the balance on the rural market.

T V Narendran, chief executive officer (CEO) and managing director of Tata Steel, says: “Domestic demand during the lockdown and its progressive easing emerged from rural India, which benefited from a good monsoon in 2019 leading to record foodgrain production.” That this community is engaged in using the extra money with them in building houses and grain storehouses is evidenced by demand generation for steel and cement during the pandemic. This year, too, the country is having a normal, well distributed monsoon encouraging farmers to bring in extra land under kharif crops. So expect good rural steel demand to last till the middle of 2021, assuming rabi cultivation will be plentiful too.

According to Narendran, “demand generation from this sector in the present trying times is also aided by government spending on rural infrastructure and affordable housing.” Steel in the form of pipes and hardware will be required in growing quantities as the government wants to provide piped water connection to every rural household under Jal Jeevan Mission by 2024. Moreover, all steel-based items linked to the rural economy are seeing their consumption grow. “In the automotive sector, tractor sales are reasonably good and motorcycles are doing better than scooters. The reason being their rural connection,” says Narendran. According to rating agency Crisil, a good monsoon has proved to be a mitigator of the coronavirus impact on tractor sales. 


Of its Rs 82,125-crore turnover, Tata Steel earns around 20 per cent revenue by selling roofing materials, reinforcing steel for individual house builders and farm equipment in the rural market.  

A recurring theme in Steel Minister Dharmendra Pradhan’s exhortation is that steelmakers must “develop low-cost, high quality products suitable for rural consumption. These could be highly steel-intensive affordable rural housing, irrigation pipelines and daily use products.”

JSW Steel Chairman Sajjan Jindal says in the same vein: “The only way to increase steel demand is to move into people’s households. Steel mills are required to promote use of the metal in furniture and household goods and not just stay focussed on high profile sectors such as automobile.”

Popularising steel products the way Jindal has recommended will lead to substitution of wood by steel, which is recyclable, in the making of furniture, doors and windows for use in urban, semi-urban centres.

As more such products are developed by major steelmakers using their technical and designing skills, benefits will acc­rue to medium and small enterprises who will be assigned to make them. In pioneering moves, Tata Steel has developed a steel-based smart housing solution, steel windows and doors and water vending kiosk made of steel, which are finding increasing acceptability. In­tro­duction of value-added products for use by ultimate consumers will to some ex­tent insulate steel from business cyclicality. Fortunes of the metal will, however, continue to be decided by the performance of the broader economy. Hopefully, rural market among all steel-consuming sectors alone standing out in a situation of near total demand destruction in April and May will henceforward lead steelma­kers to aggressively promote the metal use beyond traditional consumption points.

Job losses caused by the Covid-19 outbreak forced nearly 30 million migrant workers constituting a fifth of urban labour force to return home braving all odds. There is welcome realisation in the government that the only way to lure a good number of them to return to cities to give a leg up to economic activity will be to give them inexpensive rental dwellings. At the same time, for the benefit of those who will not risk going back to cities, the government is to implement a series of rural infrastructure projects, including housing for the poor. All that will translate into demand generation for construction steel.

Reminding that as much as two-thirds of steel demand originates in infrastructure and construction work, Dilip Oo­m­men, CEO of ArcelorMittal Nippon Steel India, says not only does steel need more state-funded infrastructure projects, but the industry also requires “the governme­nt making payments on time, even up­front to expedite work. Backlog of unpaid bills contributes to the freezing of unfinished projects.” As the pandemic has ro­bbed the industry of demand, Oommen wants steel to be made the material of choice in all possible areas on grounds of “safety, durability and life cycle cost.”

China, which continues to make im­pressive economic recovery since late February, has this year been a major destination for Indian steel exports. But that has not stopped Oommen from worrying about the “enduring threat posed by Chi­nese state-subsidised steel imports.” His concern is not to be taken lightly. World Steel Association has forecast Chinese 2020 demand to rise barely 1 per cent to 916.5 MT and demand next year to re­ma­in static. So as the year advances, China is likely to have surpluses that must be exported. As in the past, India, where mu­ltiple local taxes constituting 12 per cent of production costs rob Indian steel of “competitiveness before it leaves the pla­nt,” will be a natural export target for Chi­na. Oommen says in the circumstances, introduction of the border adjustment tax will be relief to Indian steel.  

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