The India-Central Asia Car Rally that rolled out of Astana on Thursday reached Temirtav, Laxmi Mittal’s steel city in central Kazakhstan. Temirtav seems like a Kazakh city with a distinct Indian identity. Arcelor Mittal seems to be everywhere, running everything from schools and hospitals to city trams. In fact, Mittal even supplies electricity to the town from its own power plants fired by coal from its own mines. Homes and businesses are heated by Mittal’s heated water pipelines and even the hotel we stay in is owned by Arcelor Mittal. The menu at the hotel is entirely Indian and has upma and sambar apart from other Indian dishes. The Indian presence in this remote part of Central Asia is indeed palpable.
Yet, of the 40,000 workforce in Temirtav, only a dozen odd are Indian nationals. About fifty nationalities work in Mittal run coal mines, integrated steel plant, and iron ore mines, but these dozen odd persons hold commanding positions in the businesses. The steel business flourished until the fall in global steel prices in 2008, but now is barely keeping afloat. Originally owned by the Soviet Union, the steel business was taken over by Laxmi Mittal in 1995 and expanded rapidly with backward and forward integration. Most of the steel produced here goes to build all those gleaming high-rises in Astana, the spanking new capital. Incidentally, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the founder president of Kazakh Republic started his career in this steel plant sixty years ago.
Kazakhstan, with a landmass that is only marginally smaller than that of India, has a population of just 17 million, less than our metropolises and equal to the population we add every year in India. Although mineral-rich, this country has vast stretches of steppe, unfit for human habitation. The mountain ranges that criss-cross the terrain also add to the country’s isolation. Land-locked, Kazakhstan is wedged between two powerful neighbours whom it has to balance deftly to be able to survive. The country’s oil and gas, concentrated on the Caspian goes mostly to Russia, thanks to the extensive pipeline systems built during the Soviet period. Recently, China built the Atasu–Alashankou oil pipeline to carry oil from Central Kazakhstan to Xinjiang from where the West-East Pipeline systems would ferry hydrocarbons to China’s markets in the south and east. But Kazakhstan is predominantly dependent on Russia for its hydrocarbon export market. History and geography have ineluctably tied Kazakhstan to Russia.
Nazarbayev, unlike his Turkmen counterpart, seems to place great emphasis on education and training so that the vast resources of the region can be utilised within the country. Every year, the Kazakh state offers more than 3000 scholarships to bright young men and women to study abroad, especially in the USA, EU and China with the stipulation that they should come back and serve Kazakhstan at least for five years. The move seems to be already yielding dividends with many key positions in industry opening up for this new talent.
The car rally reached Balqash on Friday evening. Balqash is the town on the banks of the Balqash lake, but nowadays, its chief claim to fame is its huge uranium mines in Balqash province. Even India sources the all-important yellow cake from these mines.
No wonder then the Indian delegation gets a red carpet welcome wherever we go. So far, the going has been smooth for the rally, but on Saturday, there is an 800 kilometers drive on a single day to reach Taldeqorgan at the Chinese border. But with such spectacular sunsets, and a stunning moonrise, the mood of the rallyists continues to remain upbeat.