Mandi Gobindgarh still retains the charm of a pind, a quintessential Punjabi village. There’s the occasional farm, a splash of green in an otherwise black and grey landscape. The winter sun is kept out by thick smog, which falls like a blanket over a line of locked steel mills. It calls to mind a ghost town, an antithesis of the bustling Ludhiana barely 60 km away. Once known as the ‘Tatanagar of Punjab’ and still known as the ‘loha mandi’, Mandi Gobindgarh has become a symbol of Punjab’s dwindling business sentiment, done in rust.
If we journey back 100 years, to 1902, Mandi Gobindgarh would have seemed a different place. It was set up as an industrial area in Nabha state by Maharaja Hira Singh, the successor of the Phulkian Dynasty under the British. It was a time of battles and weapons were necessary, and one story goes that this led to the founding of this loha mandi. The landlocked town must have seemed ideal and it once was walled in, with four doors, which have now been brought down. There are legends attached to its glory, even that a warrior saint had blessed the town with never running out of iron.
“The Sirhind-Khanna-Mandi Gobindgarh cluster was extremely prosperous,” says Vinod Vashisht, president, All India Steel Re-rollers Association (AISRA) and chairman, Lakshmi Steel Rolling Mills — one of the biggest medium-sized enterprises in the area. The first steel re-rolling mill was set up here in 1940 and Mandi Gobindgarh remains the largest cluster of MSMEs in the secondary steel industry. The secondary industry, which includes re-rolling mills that turn scrap metal into products and are spread across the country, meets 57% of India’s steel requirement. This town has always adapted to its changing masters and their demands, but today, when its contribution could have been crucial, it stands on the verge of irrelevance. Its share in India’s steel production has fallen to 40% in 1970 to 15-20%, now. Meanwhile, the industry with roughly 1,200 units across India is moving east to Jharkhand and Odisha, west to Gujarat and Mahar