Normally, when a project of this size is called off, it sends ripples throughout the entire steel sector, and even negatively affects the stock market.
Yet, when a few days ago, South Korean steelmaker POSCO let it be known that it had decided to put its much-vexed $12 billion project to build a steel plant in India’s iron ore-rich state Odisha on hold, the reaction in India as well as globally was muted. Almost as if it was anticipated.
Regulatory and Approval Delays
The subdued response can best be attributed to the extraordinary delay – a decade – in trying to get the project off the ground. Holdups in receiving permissions for land use and environmental clearances from the local and Indian governments, long legal battles, protests against the project by residents, red tapism, even the kidnapping of company executives in 2007 for a day by protesting activists, all ensured that the project remained a paper tiger all this while. It’s been a veritable ten years of legal and public relations battles for the former Pohang Iron and Steel Company.
For much of this period, we at MetalMiner, faithfully reported and analyzed the developments on the “POSCO India story,” from the sidelines.
It’s not clear yet, though, whether the Korean giant has finally thrown in the towel in sheer disgust at the inordinate delay, or whether it’s really a strategic decision that was part of the company’s overall cut in overseas business. Given the fact that steel industry across the globe is hemorrhaging cash, it could very well be the latter.
Blame the Steel Market
Officially, unnamed POSCO officials were quoted in the Indian media saying – it’s all part of the restructuring. The exercise is expected to reduce by about a third, POSCO’s overseas businesses. The company has been struggling with sagging profits for some time now, and cutting costs seems like the best way out for now. No doubt, if the Odisha project had gotten off the ground, it would have had provided some financial succor for POSCO in today’s troubled times.
However, a Press Trust of India report quoted by website FirstPost said POSCO put the project on hold due to the aforementioned delays in regulatory approvals.
As far back as early 2014, we predicted that the POSCO India project was on its deathbed, and that no amount of posturing by either the new Indian government sworn in last year or even by POSCO could save it.
A Reuters report said the South Korean steelmaker scrapped its plans after a new law made it costlier to source iron ore for the plant. This was the entire attraction of Odisha in the first place, access to cheap and readily available iron ore.
POSCO Swears The Project’s Not Dead… Yet
The steel major, however, would like everyone to believe that the epitaph of this “Indian steel tragedy” has yet to be written. Steel analysts here feel that POSCO, the world’s sixth-largest steelmaker by revenue, was likely to continue in India even if it ultimately decided to scrap the Odisha project altogether. That’s because the company had no choice but to be in a country where steel consumption was growing at a steady pace, a global rarity.
There are also conflicting reports that POSCO was thinking of taking the steel project somewhere else in India – perhaps to the western state of Maharashtra where it already has a downstream steel project. But this was all officially denied by POSCO.
The company has, so far, acquired only around 600 acres out of more than 4,000 acres needed for the 12-million-metric-tons-per-annum steel plant.
And what would have been an otherwise humorous episode in the rather serious steel business was the fact that barely a couple of days after POSCO’s announcement that it would abandon the project, local tribal residents were reported to have forcibly reoccupied the land they had given up for the project. Almost 500 of the 600 acres of land have been taken over as of this writing. That, more than anything else, was the real pointer to this project’s final status – “a lost cause.”
The author, Sohrab Darabshaw, contributes an Indian perspective on industrial metals markets to MetalMiner.