BHUBANESWAR: Dust. It's in most street corners of Rourkela. It's on the top of your floaters. It's on the bag you carry. It's on the windscreen of your cab. To be fair to the city, divided under two townships (steel and civil), dust is a common Indian problem. But this is a different kind of dust. It's the dust that tells you there are multiple buildings being constructed within a few blocks of each other. It's the dust that tells you an earthmover is somewhere in the vicinity, moving large quantities of sand. It's the dust that turns your black shoes brown within a few hours... it's the dust that tells you the city is being reconstructed from scratch, one piece of land at a time.
The city's dust pollution has been flagged by Dilip Ray, a former Union minister and Rourkela MLA, who wrote to chief minister Naveen Paknaik. "On March 8 (2021), as per a report of the State Pollution Control Board the level of PM 2.5 and PM 10 was five times higher than the desired level and it's needless to underscore the devastating health consequences of such high level of pollution on the citizens," he wrote.
"One understands that such development works have been necessitated by the growing needs of the city but it is equally important to ensure that such works don't become a source of incessant trouble for the general public."
The developmental works, though, are understandable. The Steel City is in a race against time to transform Rourkela before its big day out. The 2023 edition of the men's hockey World Cup which it will co-host with Bhubaneswar.
There is a tendency to look for romance in sport. It lends itself to narrative, gives it a certain feel-good factor. That's what Rourkela had on the afternoon of December 24, 2020. Patnaik promised India's biggest hockey stadium would come up in Rourkela. As far as feel-good stories went, this was up there with Harry Potter naming his son Albus Severus, after Dumbledore and Snape. That's the heft the place commands. It's considered as one of the sport's nurseries in the country.
Kids getting acquainted with hockey sticks while learning multiplication tables isn't an exaggeration. The belt's dalliance with the sport, after missionaries had taken it to the region, grew thanks to a steady stream of players the district contributed to the national team. There is no one more prominent than Dilip Tirkey.
"It will be a big social event," he says.
"Taking the World Cup to a tribal belt will send a positive message to the youth there. Hockey is there in their DNA." Another former captain to have emerged from Rourkela, Lazarus Barla, echoed Tirkey's sentiments.
"I didn't even dream that this day would come," he said.
"Locals filling stands, watching a World Cup."
He is so caught up while talking about it he manages to wear a smile throughout the conversation at Panposh sports hostel, a facility for boys and girls hoping to become the next Tirkey or Barla. Some 3.7 kms from Panposh sports hostel, there is a commemorative plaque remembering the players who have worn the Indian jersey from the region. It's aptly named 'Hockey Chowk'. Come January 2023, this 'Hockey Chowk' will throw one of its biggest parties ever.
Fifteen acres. That is the land (roughly 11.5 full-sized football fields) that's been allocated to build India's biggest hockey stadium, a 21,050 seater at roughly Rs 130 crore. Because of the second Covid-19 wave, there was a delay. Suspicious soil integrity, people on the ground told this daily, meant that the practice facility will now be the stadium facility and vice versa. For want of a better phrase, the entire area looks like a hole in the ground, a series of interconnected pits with steel rods protruding out of them.
"Work stopped for 21 days because of Covid-19 but in terms of actual construction, we lost four months," one of the contractors informed.
He is confident that it will be completed by July. To make it happen, they have taken special permission from the government. "People are working in three shifts so work will progress 24 hours a day till July," the contractor says. Some people will have to do so without a single off or leave. To ensure players and officials don't have problems commuting to and from the stadium, the aerodrome — located a stone's away from the stadium — is also being given a facelift. When that is complete, 76-seater flights can land.
The other big developmental project going on near the stadium is also linked to the World Cup. A multi-purpose building (it was a Covid-19 hospital earlier in the year) will now be 200-bed hotel that could potentially house teams and officials.
Elsewhere, roads are being widened, parks are being beautified and existing stadia are being completely overhauled. Both the Birsa Munda football stadium and the Biju Patnaik Indoor Stadium are multi-crore projects which could become the hub for sport in the region going forward. The two stadia, between them, can host football, badminton and swimming among other disciplines. The officials in the district are even redoing the city's rainwater drains. Out of a total of more than two-dozen projects under the Smart Cities Mission, 'about 60% is directly or indirectly related to the World Cup', one official responsible for delivering the project said. In the name of sport, a city is rapidly changing its colour.
Even as the Odisha government was applauded for the part they played in the men's team's bronze at the Olympics, voices of dissent have grown within the state for the oversized role it has taken in promoting the sport. A few of the locals wonder if taking the World Cup to Rourkela is a political ploy to gain traction in western Odisha. More damagingly, some parties have alleged that the state is using the District Mineral Foundation (DMF) in non-priority projects (DMF funds are typically used in areas or communities affected by mining-related activities).
In November, two MLAs of Sundergarh, Shankar Oram (BJP, Birmitrapur) and CS Rajen Ekka (Congress, Rajgangpur), both members of the DMF trust board, flagged the issue. There has also been some noise on seeking a CAG audit. In July, the ministry of Mines (DMF comes under their purview) once again reminded all states about transfer of funds from DMF.
"It has come to the notice of the Central government that there are instances where a part of the funds of the DMF are being transferred to the State treasury/consolidated fund of the State or Chief Minister's Relief Fund or schemes," they said.
It further noted that transfer of funds from DMF to a state-level agency defeats the purpose of DMF in the first place. It also reminded states that any such utilisation is in violation of the provision of Section 9B of the Act (it's important to note that there has been no suggestion that the state is falling foul of the Act). R Vineel Krishna, during a conversation with this daily, did say that they were using part of the DMF for their sports budget this year.
"We have a combination of investments," the commissioner-cum-secretary, sports and youth services department and special secretary to the chief minister, said.
"There is the state budget. Some of these are mineral districts so there is a district mineral fund. Then we have OMBUDC (Odisha Mineral Bearing Area Development Corporation). We have massive CSR funding also, so it's a combination of all of this. Our budget for this year is about Rs 500cr but it's because we are investing in infrastructure. Once infrastructure is done in a year or two, we can stabilise at about Rs 200 cr."
Krishna, though, pivoted to speaking about hockey when it was suggested to him that the state was perhaps taking the World Cup to western Odisha for political purposes.
"Political things I shouldn't be saying," he said.
"From where I see, it's more driven by the passion for sport. If you look at our sports hostels, most of them come from Sundergarh. It's not only about hockey, it's about athletics, football, almost everything. "(...) if it's to be politically done, then there are other politically weak areas also for the state government..."
The Ease of Living Index (EoLI) for 2020, released by the ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs in March 2021, made for grim reading from a Rourkela perspective. Among all cities with a population of less than a million, Rourkela ranked 54 out of 62 (EoLI is based on criteria like education, health, housing, safety and security, environment and so on). Per the report, Rourkela came in 58th out of 62 for quality of life, 26th for economic ability, 35th for sustainability and 29th in citizen perception. The hope is that the World Cup will lift Rourkela into the top 10 and beyond in all of these metrics.