Mills of history

Print edition : August 05, 2016

A defunct mill, with chawls in the foreground, at Lalbaug in central Mumbai. Photo: Paul Noronha

At one time, the soaring chimneys of textile mills with their names boldly painted on their distinctive saw-toothed roofs dominated the skyscape behind the chawls.

DRIVING on the Parel flyover in central Mumbai is like a lesson in history. The flyover runs parallel to the chawls with their typical architecture—long common verandahs with rooms opening out on to them offering small glimpses into the lives of the inhabitants within. At one time, the soaring chimneys of textile mills with their names boldly painted on their distinctive saw-toothed roofs dominated the skyscape behind the chawls. Now glitzy skyscrapers, or what real estate agents call “towers”, have replaced the mills. A few chimneys remain, though, some by design with architects gentrifying them in some manner or keeping them as a token of remembrance. The mill premises that are still waiting to be “developed” are ready for the demolition ball, with smashed glass panes, crumbling masonry, and trees sprouting on chimney tops.

The workers’ chawls, however, do not look decrepit as they were built on the solidness of 19th century industrial promises. Although the residents of the chawls are still largely mill workers and their families, the present generation has inevitably lost the connect that their fathers had with the mills. “What is the point of holding on?” asked Sushil Ganpatrao Kadam, 50. He works for a firm that supplies security guards for establishments. Recalling his father’s daily schedule, he said: “The mill bhonga [siren] would announce the shift timings and we would see hordes of men entering or leaving the big gates. The place was alive in a different way. There was less traffic on the roads then. There were only mill workers here. Even the shops outside the mills were of the sort we could go to. At Diwali time, the chawls would be decorated with orange kandeels [paper lanterns]. This was home to us; many of us got married here. My wife lived in a neighbouring chawl before she became my ‘missus’.”

Kadam thought he would join the mills just as his father had, following in his grandfather’s footsteps. But the 1982 mill workers strike changed everything for many mill workers’ families. The striking workers, led by the trade union leader Datta Samant, demanded an increase in wages and a bonus. About 2,50,000 workers struck work, and 50 of the 80 or so mills stopped operations.

The industry was paralysed. The strike was a landmark in trade union history. Until the fiery Samant came on the scene, the officially recognised union of the textile workers had been the Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh, which was affiliated to the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC). Samant was able to get a substantial wage hike for the workers of Premier Automobiles, and this paved the way for his election as the representative of textile workers. The strike called by Samant lasted a year, and at the end of it nothing was achieved. Before the strike, there were about 2,50,000 workers in the mills. When the mills reopened a year later, about a hundred thousand lost their jobs. Predictably, the majority of those who had lost their jobs had been active during the strike. Some of the mills had either shut down or moved out of the city, and this also resulted in loss of jobs.

Samant’s strike failed for two reasons. One, his magic worked at Premier Automobiles because it was a thriving concern and could afford wage increases, whereas the textile mills were units that had been allowed to become financially sick. Two, Samant’s combative style made the government obstinate. Although Samant had connections with the Congress, especially with A.R. Antulay, who was Maharashtra’s Chief Minister from 1980 to 1982, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was wary of him. The fear was that if Samant was successful with the textile mills strike, he would extend his combative style to other labour-intensive sectors such as the Railways and the docks. Thus, it was politics and not labour policies that played a role in the government’s refusal to bow to Samant’s demands for textile workers.

Over the years, the mills gradually shut down, and with the unions in disarray, not much was achieved for the mill workers. There was a small surge of unionisation when workers of 10 closed mills banded together and formed the Bandh Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti (Shut Mills Workers Action Committee) in 1989. Their main aim was to reopen the mills and re-employ the 25,000-odd jobless workers. They succeeded in helping a large number of workers to get their dues. The majority of them were apparently given cheap houses in lieu of jobs, but the Samiti was unable to achieve its main goal of resurrecting the textile industry. Greater powers were at work to prevent the reopening of the mills.

With the advent of economic liberalisation in 1991, the militant trade unionism of the 1970s and 1980s was forced out of the scene quite rapidly. The infusion of money and investment meant more competition in the industry, and as a result managements began to baulk at unions’ demands. Workers were not being paid. There was reverse migration. Some workers survived on unskilled jobs. The erosion of trade unions had begun, and in any case they were beginning to learn the language of the new business ethos in which labour welfare played only a small role. Part of the failing of the trade unions was that they did not link up with the larger brotherhood of textile workers in the power loom and garments sectors. This was partly because these sectors were already tightly controlled by the government’s globalisation policies. Also, national trade unions did not show much interest in resolving the troubles of Mumbai’s textile workers. As a result of this lack of interest, the larger issue of textile policy reform was not addressed.

The government’s fascination with globalisation and international markets damaged the prospects of domestic markets. The Mumbai textile mills were composite mills doing everything from spinning to weaving and yarn processing, and so the workers were paid higher wages. In the power loom sector, the input costs were far lower, and so the wages were low. Outsourcing became the byword, and the power looms of Bhiwandi, Icchalkaranji and Malegaon began offering cheaper options.

The mill sethias (men with lordly ways) saw the way the wind was blowing and allowed their businesses to slide. Capital was used for other purposes, machinery was not repaired, equipment was not modernised. The mills were allowed to turn sick. But the sprawling mill properties, obtained at concessional rates for industrial use, fetched huge amounts of money for the owners. When the mills became unproductive, the sethias requested the government to allow them to sell the land in order to revive the mills. With a nod and wink, the government allowed this. Needless to say, the money from the sale of land was not invested in the textile industry. Instead, high-end housing complexes and shopping malls came up on the 600 acres (240 hectares) of mill land.

The world of the Sushil Ganpatrao Kadams had faded away. Mumbai’s textile industry and its workers had become a thing of the past.

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