No industry, no Solapur

Print edition : November 05, 2004

The powerloom and beedi industries suffered owing to liberalisation and many of its workers were pushed into insecure, informal work as domestic helps, waiters or ragpickers.

in Solapur

"AT one time, it was said that gold dust hung over this city. Now, it's reduced to ashes," said Naseem Sheikh, a corporator from Solapur, known as the city of workers. The city's textile mills and beedi industry attracted migrants from Maharashtra's rural areas and from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. The closure of the mills, starting in the 1980s, spelled doom for 30,000 workers and the economy plummeted. The powerloom and beedi industries suffered owing to liberalisation and many of its workers were pushed into insecure, informal work as domestic helps, waiters or ragpickers. The wives of some former mill workers do rag-picking to earn around Rs.20 daily.

Rolling beedis at home for a living.-DIONNE BUNSHA

In Solapur and many other industrial cities in Maharashtra, there is little hope that any party will do anything to create new employment opportunities for the unemployed workers. In Solapur, many homes barely survive on the meagre amounts of money that the women make from rolling beedis. The beedi industry is under threat so too are their jobs; and incomes have already fallen by 20 per cent.

Chandrasekhar Jakkan worked in a spinning mill for 22 years but has been jobless since the mill closed down six years ago. "My wife and children roll beedis at home. That's how this house runs - on their daily wages. I haven't worked since the mill shut down," he said. Now, even his wife's earnings have fallen. "We used to get 1,000 beedis and earn Rs.50, now we get only 800 and make only around Rs.35. Moreover, they give us two holidays, so there is no income on those days," said his wife.

Solapur's 150-year-old beedi industry, which employs around 70,000 home-based women workers, is under threat from imported mini-cigarettes as well as the Anti-Tobacco Law 2004, which prohibits the advertising of cigarettes and beedis and their consumption in public places. While large corporate manufacturers circumvented the ban on tobacco promotion by using surrogate advertising, the small beedi companies are the worst-hit.

At a powerloom unit in Solapur.-DIONNE BUNSHA

The powerloom industry, which emerged in the informal sector when the mills closed, is also under threat. "There are virtually no export orders anymore. The government has cancelled the 9 per cent export subsidy. The looms are empty, now we are working at a little more than half our capacity. Workers get work for only three or four days," said Anjanna Pobatti, owner of a powerloom workshop.

Adjacent to Solapur town is outgoing Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde's Solapur South (Rural) constituency. Shinde tried to nurture the region by announcing a revival package for powerlooms, with various concessions for re-opening the closed units. But the town is still in the doldrums. "Most Chief Ministers nurture their constituencies and ensure that they prosper, but Shinde doesn't do anything for Solapur. He hasn't brought a single factory here," said Shivsharan Patil, the local Shiv Sena MLA. In the Lok Sabha elections held earlier this year Shinde's wife Ujjwala lost from Solapur.

A city struggling to breathe, Solapur's problems are symbolic of urban Maharashtra today where de-industrialisation, unemployment and skewed urban development have led to the deterioration of living standards. Many live in inhuman conditions; without the basic necessities of housing, drinking water and hygiene. "Now, we get water for a few hours once in two days. There are frequent power blackouts," said Jakkan's wife.

Unemployment and the simmering frustration have made the place an ideal breeding ground for fundamentalist forces. For the first time in history, Solapur experienced communal riots in November 2002. This time the voters here preferred the Communist Party of India (Marxist) candidate in Solapur City South, which had earlier been with the Shiv Sena, and the BJP candidate in Solapur City North, a seat held by the Congress. The CPI(M) union has organised beedi workers to regularise their employment. Beyond promising to re-open the two government spinning mills here, no party has any plans or promises to attract new industry. This threatens the city's very raison d'etre. As Pobatti put it, "If there is no industry, there is no Solapur."

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