Veteran trade unionist and mill workers' leader Datta Iswalkar passes away

Published : April 08, 2021 20:01 IST

Datta Iswalkar

Mild mannered but tough talking. The proverbial steel fist in an iron glove. That was Datta Iswalkar.

On April 7 he died at the age of 72, his battles, if not largely won, then at least, left with solid foundations for others to carry the fight forward.

Iswalkar had been ailing for a few years and he finally succumbed to a brain haemorrhage.

For someone with humble beginnings, Iswalkar achieved considerable success. He started his career as a peon in Modern Mills at a time when the cotton mills made the erstwhile Bombay hum with commerce and prosperity. Of course, little of this filtered down to the workers, but they were not dissatisfied. They had housing, lived on or near their workplaces, and more often than not their children were guaranteed jobs in the same mills. It was a running joke that girls wanted to marry boys who were from the same mills or neighbouring ones so that the thread of their lives remained unbroken. To that extent there was contentment, Iswalkar had once said.

But when the cotton mill industry faded away all that was left were the empty hulks of the mill buildings, their distinctive chimneys, the workers’ chawls and, most prized, the many hectares that they occupied of prime real estate in central Mumbai. The workers—the backbone of the mills—were suddenly seen as parasites. Mill owners, anxious to monetise their land, wanted the workers to leave. They naturally demanded work or a payoff.

This is when Iswalkar came into his own. Not coincidentally, on Gandhi Jayanti 1989 he founded the Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti of which he remained president till the end. From 1988 to 1990 he and his union were responsible for the revival of 10 defunct mills. Determined but also practical, Iswalkar took the next step in 1999 when he realised the lure of real estate would win. Malls, sprawling luxury homes and office complexes replaced the mills. Iswalkar worked hard to get the children of the mill workers jobs in these establishments and in this process took on what really became his calling. He reasoned that if the mill lands were to be sold then those that had brought the mills prosperity should also benefit. He petitioned the government and is credited with getting homes for at least 15,000 former mill workers.

Like his namesake Datta Samant, Iswalkar was also a trade unionist but unlike Samant, who could resort quickly to strong-arm tactics, Iswalkar was known for his persuasive way of convincing the other side, be it goons or sethias (mills owners).

A fine man but modest and unassuming and, lacking the fire and brimstone of his contemporaries, it is sadly likely that he may soon fade from public memory but hopefully not from trade union history.