The year was 1970, I was a first year student at the prestigious Government College Lahore. Vacancies were announced for future engineers to be employed at the first steel mill of the country. The plan was to recruit on open merit twenty young students studying science at the Intermediate level. They were then to be sent to the Soviet Union for five years to study Metallurgical Engineering.
First-year was for developing language skills followed by technical education to earn an MS degree. Excitedly I also applied, as the competition was intense, on the merit list I secured the 18th position. Call letters were issued, we were asked to prepare for the journey to Moscow, which unfortunately did not materialize.
As a Metallurgist my romance with Steel making continues but it must be known that the Ore Deposit at Chiniot does not contain Gold, Silver and Copper as claimed by the previous government based on the misinformation of a Nuclear Scientist.
As Chancellor, Governor Lt General Attiq-ur-Rehman was invited to the annual convocation of the University of Engineering and Technology (UET). During that period unemployment amongst qualified engineers was rampant. There was a protest, degrees were burnt. Voices were raised against the scheme to send immature science students to a Communist country as indoctrination was feared.
To accommodate the unemployed lot, the five youngest of the earlier selected were dropped. I did not make it to Moscow but my romance with the Steel Mill continued as it was a major milestone on our journey to self-reliance in this vital sector. After completing my Intermediate, I was able to get admission in the Metallurgy program at the Institute of Chemical Engineering and Technology located in the Old Campus of Punjab University on the Mall.
Dreams do come true
On July 02, 1973, a beaming Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) as President of Pakistan inaugurated the construction work of Pakistan Steel Mills Ltd (PSM) as a State-owned enterprise. Spread over an area of 18,660 acres at Port Qasim it was a massive project. The Steel Town was named after him as Zulfiqarabad. When finally I had the chance of visiting the site in 1975 for our final year project, it was a dream come true. The Russian engineers were there together with their Pakistani counterparts.
The proud moment came on August 14, 1981, when Pakistan entered the elite club of Steel Producing nations with the commissioning of the first Blast Furnace. What the first Prime Minister (PM) Liaquat Ali Khan had envisioned, and then advanced by Hussain Shaheed Suharwardy and finally turned into reality by ZAB was right in front of us, it was an unforgettable sight.
Later I had a similar feeling when I visited the Saindak Copper-Gold project in 1992 that was envisioned by his daughter Benazir and then the Thar Coal Project in 2018 when I touched the Coal seam at the bottom of the pit. It was a satisfying moment as I had been a key player in developing this energy resource.
Failed to achieve self-reliance
The closure of the only Steel Plant of the country in 2015 was a national tragedy that warrants an investigation. Till 2008 the mill was profitable mainly due to the hard work of its Chairman Lt Col. (Retd) Muhammad Afzal Khan. Earlier H.N. Akhtar Sahib had played an important role in establishing the facility, a few years back I had the chance of meeting him at a seminar on Thar Coal.
Steel is the basic building block of a nation, the importance of which has been grossly ignored by successive governments that followed. The current need of the country is around 5 MTPY (Million Tons Per Year ), while PSM was producing 1.1 MTPY the rest was being imported. The two Blast Furnaces at PSM convert Iron Ore into Pig Iron ( a raw high carbon content form of Iron ) which is then converted into Steel.
Two main raw materials (Iron Ore, Coking Coke) are imported from Australia as our indigenous resources have not been developed as yet. The plan was to gradually shift to local Ores and expand the facility to meet our national needs but unfortunately, it did not happen. Despite local know-how and indigenous resources, we have failed to achieve self-reliance in this important area.
Instead of building more Steel Plants, we were not even able to keep running the one we have.
Abundance of raw material
All other Steel Mills in the country melt steel scrap to shape it while PSM first extracts Iron from its naturally occurring form and then coverts it into useable steel through a process called Smelting (Melting + Chemical Reactions). For conservation of energy, the modern trend of Steel Making is through a Direct Reduction process that does not use the Blast Furnace.
Instead of building more Steel Plants, we were not even able to keep running the one we have. As Chairman Pakistan Science Foundation (PSF), I evaluated all the Iron Deposits of Pakistan for purposes of Steel Making. The Iron Deposits at Chiniot stand out followed by Chicali and Nokundi. The Kalabagh Orebody is the largest but lower in grade.
In the decade of the fifties, the Germans were able to extract Iron from this Ore using the Krupp-Renn Process but the project was shelved due to high-energy costs. In 2011 the Metals and Mineral Development Center at PCSIR Lahore was able to produce Iron from this deposit using a modified Krupp-Renn process on a PSF sponsored project. This work now awaits Pilot Level testing before large scale commercialization.
The tragic fate of PSM
I am not against the privatization of Pakistan Steel Mills but it must be turned around and kept running, it should not be sold as scrap. Last year, I had the opportunity of meeting the Russian Ambassador. They are very keen on restoring the facility, which they built. PM has admitted the delay in resolving PSM as a low point of his government. Within PTI there was consensus on restoring the Mills, in his Jalsa of December 25, 2011 at Mazar-e-Quaid he announced his intention of reviving the PSEs (Public Sector Enterprises). It seems the revival plans were also sidelined by the electables who joined the party on that fateful day.
In 2008, the privatization of PSM during the regime of PM Shaukat Aziz was annulled by Ifthikar Chaudhry led Supreme Court, then in 2008 a profitable unit was plundered by the Zardari led Government. Then followed by the ‘Lohar‘ (Foundry men) family of Lahore who wanted to drive its value down to acquire it as scrap. Shutting down of gas supply by SSGC in 2015 of a running Steel Plant was disastrous which could have been avoided.
The proud moment came on August 14, 1981, when Pakistan entered the elite club of Steel Producing nations with the commissioning of the first Blast Furnace.
Yes, I favour a NAB or FIA investigation into the Pakistan Steel Mills affairs as the dust has not settled down. The country needs to produce its own Steel to cater for its needs. The ML-1 programme of upgrading Pakistan Railways has started under CPEC for which a new track has to be laid. When it comes to Steel Making, the callous sense of direction is certainly deplorable and must be corrected to cater for our current and future needs.
On a lighter note, as a Metallurgist my romance with Steel making continues but it must be known that the Ore Deposit at Chiniot does not contain Gold, Silver and Copper as claimed by the previous government based on the misinformation of a Nuclear Scientist. Pakistan requires four to five steel mills based on indigenous ore deposits to attain self-reliance in this vital area, which provides the basic building block of meaningful development.
Dr. Farid A.Malik is the Ex-Chairman Pakistan Science Foundation. He was a Shadow Minister PTI and Co-Ordinator of the PTI Think Tank where the framework of the Welfare State was developed. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.