Print edition : April 14, 2001

Another saga of the deepening hardships that textile mill workers face in Mumbai.

ARUN MANE'S will to live finally broke when he found he could no longer afford to send his four children to school. Like his co-workers at Mumbai's historic Tata-run Svadeshi Mills in Girangaon, 38-year-old Mane had received no wages since August 2000, when the textile unit stopped all operations. Pawning family jewellery, cashing savings collected after decades of hard graft, or working as porters at the nearby Kurla railway station, Svadeshi's 2,800 factory floor employees have struggled to survive. Mane was not the first in Mumbai's dying mill lands to cross the fragile line between desperation and despair. In September 2000, three workers at Mafatlal Mills committed suicide and more deaths seem certain to follow.

The sprawling premises of Svadeshi Mills at Girangaon. Since the unit stopped all operations in August 2000, its 2,800 factory floor employees are struggling to survive.-ATUL KAMBLE

Maharashtra's Secretariat, the Mantralaya, is about an hour's drive from the railway track where Mane killed himself. It might as well be on another planet. On October 11, 2000, the State government had announced a programme to end the hardship in the mills. A four-member committee, led by a retired High Court Judge and comprising a representative each of the government, mill owners and the official trade union, the Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh (RMMS), was to supervise the sale of surplus factory land. The funds were to be used for a relatively generous voluntary retirement scheme, offering workers 35 days' wages for each year of service, and 25 days' wages for each remaining year until their retirement. Residents of mill-owned chawls (tenements) were to be guaranteed housing, and each worker's family was to be offered alternative jobs.

Other than issuing a government order to set up a committee which will monitor implementation of the new policy pertaining to textile mills, little has actually been done to address the deepening hardship that mill workers face. Even before Svadeshi Mills stopped paying wages, a quarter of the estimated 40,000 mill workers in the city were not receiving salaries. Khatau Mills stopped paying its workers almost four years ago, Matulya Mills employees have not received their salaries for the best part of three years, and those at Raghuvanshi Mills for almost two years. Raghuvanshi Mills employees have not seen their salaries for over a year. Mafatlal Mills joined this list early this year, followed by Svadeshi. In most other textile mills, including those owned by the National Textiles Corporation, salaries are often paid late and benefits like bonuses are arbitrarily suspended.

RAMESHWAR MISHRA is one among the many Svadeshi Mills workers who see no reason to hope for a happy ending. In a letter to the Mumbai Police, Mishra had said that he would end his life on March 23 if his wages were not paid by then. He did not execute his threat, but he made it clear that he did not see much point in staying alive. "I have to spend the night on railway platforms because our creditors hound me each time I go home," said Mishra, who worked at Svadeshi for almost a decade. "We have sold everything we own, and I still cannot afford to pay for the treatment of my two-year-old daughter when she falls ill," he said. Girangaon loan sharks make credit available to mill workers at an extortionate interest rate of 2 per cent a month. Earnings from hauling baggage and goods at the Kurla railway station, working as part-time guards at businesses, or selling drinks at downmarket bars run as low as Rs.50 a day, barely enough to feed a family.

Families which live in chawls built on Svadeshi's premises used to count themselves lucky, since they had access to a fair price ration shop, and did not have to commute long distances to work. Even they, however, have suffered the impact of the mill's slow death. The fair price shop was closed for over six months, forcing families to buy food on credit from local shopkeepers. After Mane's suicide, the shop re-opened, but sells only grain, not oil, sugar and other essential commodities. "I suppose I should be grateful that I haven't been reduced to begging," said Prakash Salunke, "but that is exactly what my children will grow up doing." Workers who had seen secure industrial jobs as a means to build a better future are the most bitter. Mohammad Husain, whose family has worked at Svadeshi for three generations, pawned his last possession early this year to pay for his daughter Naziya's second year at college. As things stand, he does not have enough money to make sure that she graduates.

Built in 1887, Svadeshi was Mumbai's first textile mill, the first of the factories that spread over Girangaon, Mumbai's "village of mills", in the next decades. By 1982, when trade union leader Datta Samant led the great textile strike, over 240,000 people worked in Girangaon. The industry was, however, in decline. Experts blame management failure to modernise and flawed government policies for the decline of the mills. As important, the south and central Mumbai lands on which the mills stood had become far more valuable than the factories themselves. Mill owners were barred at the time from selling land, granted to them at concessional rates for operating factories. Most mill owners simply allowed their enterprises to turn terminally ill, and then pressed for land sales to be allowed to revive the mills. Permission for sales was granted in 1991, but the funds raised were seldom used for modernisation.

Outside Svadeshi Mills, a sit-in by workers.-ATUL KAMBLE

FORBES GOKAK, the Tata-controlled company which holds 23 per cent of Svadeshi Mills' equity, followed a similar route. The company claims to have committed some Rs.60 crores to the mill over the last three years, after a Board of Industrial Finance and Reconstruction (BIFR) revival plan was put in place. Some 1,200 workers were sent out through a voluntary retirement scheme, but no details were available on just what modernisation efforts were actually undertaken. Workers said that there was little meaningful investment in new technology. Svadeshi's current debt stands at Rs.145 crores. Bank of Baroda, along with other creditors, eventually moved to liquidate Svadeshi Mills, and the BIFR told the Mumbai High Court that the revival plan had failed. On March 19, the High Court appointed a receiver to take possession of the mill, and its last functional area, Unit-III, was locked.

The Svadeshi Mills management now proposes to sell 48 acres (close to 20 hectares) of land in Kurla to meet its debts. Experience, however, gives little reason to believe that the sale will benefit workers. Documents obtained by the Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti, an independent trade union, show that Svadeshi had in 1997 been allowed to sell 28,283.24 square metres of its 95,582 sq m of spare land. In return, it was to hand over 24,402 sq m for a recreation ground, and 25,224.26 sq m to be used equally for public housing and to set up a public sector factory. None of these three public use facilities currently exists. Workers also allege that the land that was sold commercially was undervalued, allowing funds meant for mill revival to be siphoned to other group businesses. The allegation is not without basis. Matulya Mills, for example, was given similar permission for sale, but a subsequent official investigation found that the funds had been paid out to non-existent creditors.

Irregularities of this kind involving crores of rupees' worth of property are common in the case of mill lands. It is not clear whether the land that Svadeshi now hopes to sell includes that which ought to be committed to public use. As things stand, the principal component of the policy is the sale of mill lands. Depending on the size of mill holdings, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) would receive a third of the land to be sold and the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) between 27 per cent and 37 per cent, while owners would be allowed to dispose of the rest. Half of the MHADA's land would be used to build public housing, and the rest to build houses for the 6,000 families living on mill-owned chawls. Funds raised by owners will be deposited in an escrow account and what remains after clearing debts would be used either for modernising existing factories, or setting up new units, or textile mills in other locations.

GIVEN that few owners have any interest in continuing their textile operations, there will probably be large-scale movement of industry out of Girangaon. The sole concession for workers who remain in Girangaon is that one member of each family will be given a job in new businesses set up there. It is not hard to see, however, that new finance and technology concerns are unlikely to provide meaningful employment to the children of mill workers. Moreover, even mill workers who obtain housing from the MHADA will be under pressure to sell out and move to the suburbs. Concern over the overall integrity of the implementation of the policy has been fuelled by the fact that the sole worker representative on the committee which will oversee it will be from the RMMS. The RMMS is a Congress(I)-dominated official union for the industry, and many workers have little faith in the RMMS' seriousness of purpose. With, some believe, good reason: in September 1999, RMMS chief Sachin Aher had, for example, claimed to have a comprehensive revival plan in place, but nothing materialised.

Children of Arun Mane, a Svadeshi Mills worker who committed suicide.-ATUL KAMBLE

More disquiet over the workings of the new policy was generated by liquidation proceedings like that at Svadeshi, or, earlier, at Raghuvanshi Mills (Frontline, January 7, 2000). Should such liquidation proceedings become common, the entire rationale of the new policy would be undermined. There is also the prospect that managements could actually encourage liquidation proceedings since they could then avoid having to deposit land sale revenues in the escrow account. With a little help from officials, land could be sold on paper at less than their real value, with the management directly taking the balance. Nor does the new policy say what will be done with regard to illegal land sales under way in Girangaon. Many mills have little surplus land left in their control, having sold it off in violation of the law over the past decade. How their workers' interests will be protected is unclear.

With their backs against the wall, it is not surprising that workers are willing to accept any deal on offer, however unfair it may be. What is not clear is where they might go after the new policy is put in place. Maharashtra, like several other States, is witnessing a marked shift in its industrial structure, with the organised sector giving way to small, informal operations. Between 1981 and 1991, for example, the number of factories employing more than 50 workers went up only marginally, from 3,302 to 3,929. These factories employed 123,600 people, down from 125,200. By contrast, the number of factories with less than 50 workers almost doubled, from 13,392 to 24,893. Moreover, this figure does not include the vast numbers of sweatshops that thrive, unregistered and unregulated, in Maharashtra's urban slums. In these smaller factories, wages are poor and working conditions appalling.

A decade from now, luxury apartments, shopping malls and entertainment arcades will have covered the last remnants of the mills that built Mumbai. The people who worked in the mills, too, will have been pushed out of sight. Their problems, however, would not have disappeared, and their desperation could end up taking an ugly form.

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