Livelihood Issues

Grey looms

Print edition : October 16, 2015

A power loom unit in Bhiwandi. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Sunil Chavhan, president of Red Flag. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Mumtaz Sheikh, secretary of Red Flag. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Manikchand Chauhan, a power loom worker. Photo: Vivek Bendre

The hovels of loom workers. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Six to eight workers share an 80-square-foot room. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Workers eating at a bhisi. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Poor working and living conditions take a heavy toll on the loom operators of Bhiwandi, the heart of India’s power loom industry.

The day did nothing to relieve the wretchedness. Sunlight shone through shifting clouds, giving a hard metallic cast to the slushy pathways, the haggard faces of workers and the rundown workshops. Enveloping all this was the incessant clatter of thousands of power looms. The noise is tolerable on the sludge-filled pathways, but inside the workshops it is deafening. Conversations are impossible, and possibly that is for the best because every worker must focus fully on his work. To let the attention wander could mean the loss of a limb or even a fatal whack from the moving shuttle. The power looms move at frenzied speeds, have no safety coverings, and are placed within a foot or so of each other. One man operates eight to 12 machines, shifting constantly between them so that production is continuous.

Desolate and wretched sum up the essence of life in Bhiwandi, the heart of India’s power loom industry, on the outskirts of Mumbai. The town boasts 10 lakh power looms and produces nearly one-third of the cloth that India wears. It is also a place that enforces 10- to 18-hour workdays, has no industrial safety equipment or regulations in place, no drinking water, no toilet facilities, no proper housing, no nutritious food, no job security and very little monetary compensation for workers who put up with all this. There really is no reason why the workers should even be here, but as one of them says: “Life is worse in our villages.” All the workers in Bhiwandi’s power loom industry are migrants, primarily from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. Indeed, as they comprise the majority of the town’s population, they have even given Bhiwandi a north Indian flavour.

The conditions in all the units (part of the convenient disorganisation of Bhiwandi is that the units have no names or numbers) are the same—workers sweating it out in dimly lit rooms without ventilation. In one unit, the Frontline team found a boy in his early teens bent over a pile of threads, working intently. As the photographer began to take pictures of him while this correspondent interviewed a supervisor about the general working conditions, a burly man strode in. Broad-chested and arms akimbo, he was the epitome of aggression rather than authority. It turned out that he was the “sethji”, the owner of the unit. Someone had informed Mohammed Arif that we were “making inquiries”, and this apparently enraged him.

When asked why he was worried about inquiries, he said: “ Nahi, nahi, aap samajte nahi hai, log aake hamare liye muskil banate hai.” (You don’t understand the way things work, people come here to make inquiries and make things difficult for us.)

“What sort of people–government?”

(Laughs) “Government? No government people come here. Only… organisations.”

“You mean like NGOs [non-governmental organisations]?”

“Yes.”

“We saw a child working here. Is that what people come to check?”

“They accuse us of child labour but we have no children here. Can you see any child?”

“We did, before he was escorted out.”

We moved on to talk about the abysmal working conditions. Why is there no fan? “It will ruffle the threads,” was the response. When we casually checked this later with some workers, they showed us how tightly the threads were held in place and how swiftly the shuttles picked them up. The absence of fans was clearly another violation of labour laws. The law stipulates that power loom operators should work eight-hour shifts, each worker should handle only four looms, and his monthly salary should be Rs.10,000.

Sunil Chavhan, president of the Red Flag union of wipers and power loom operators, said by all accounts a worker should be paid Rs.20,000 a month since he worked eight hours every day and handled eight to12 machines (with one man doing the job of two or three workers). The union is linked to the Left-backed Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).

Bhiwandi is a law unto itself. It has even managed to evade the Factories Act. Owners of the units avoid coming under the provisions of the Act by not revealing the correct number of workers employed in their units and by expanding their business under different names. Chavhan said the units employed more than 10 workers and made heavy use of electricity, making it imperative that they come under the purview of the Act. He suggested the formation of a special board for power loom workers, similar to the one in force for beedi workers. Apart from Red Flag, which has about 5,000 power loom workers as its members, there are smaller unions, too, in Bhiwandi. But Chavhan said these units would merely file cases in court against the owners and use that to blackmail them.

There are no signs of official vigilance in Bhiwandi. The 10-kilometre radius in which the power looms are concentrated is nothing more than a grid of muddy lanes and poorly built buildings. There are no signs of town planning. The impression one gets is that the units came up on land that was not exactly designated for such a use. One of the slums where the workers live sprang up on forest land.

Anyone can start a unit in Bhiwandi as long as certain extralegal individuals are satisfied. Registration is not insisted upon to set up a power loom unit, a fact that was brought home to us when we inquired about the number of power looms that were operating and the number of workers employed and could only garner approximates.

The solid structures in Bhiwandi are the power loom workshops. The workers’ homes are lean-tos built with old asbestos sheets, bamboo poles and the ubiquitous blue plastic sheets. Six to 10 men share these 80-square-foot spaces, dividing the monthly rent of Rs.4,000 and the electricity tariff of Rs.400 between them. Since all of them cannot fit into this living space, they alternate their shifts and share the sleeping area.

A dim bulb lights the room, which contains a few battered vessels, with their underside sooted by firewood, and clothes thrown shabbily on a line. The overpowering smell of unwashed bodies fills the room. A bath is nothing more than a quick scrub with water fetched from some distance. Drinking water is at a premium. They relieve themselves in the nearby scrubland. The workers eat at bhisis, or small hotels. They pay Rs.2,000 a month for a daily meal of chappatis, rice, one vegetable and dal. “Not wheat chappatis,” the worker Durga Prasad interjects with a mirthless smile.

This section of Bhiwandi has something of the air of a Wild West frontier town. Women are noticeable by their absence. Only a handful of workers have their families here. With men working late hours, there is no security for women.

The Bhiwandi “seths” are ruthless. If a worker falls ill and fails to appear for work, he stands to lose his job. This means that the sacked worker, who is sometimes denied his full salary, must go hunting for a job in another unit. “People’s hearts just stop working from hard work,” Mumtaz Sheikh, secretary of the Red Flag union, said. In other circumstances, this would sound dramatic but not in Bhiwandi where the union estimates that at least one worker dies every day.

Tuberculosis is a common ailment among the workers because of the poor working conditions and the constant inhalation of fine cotton particles. The workers’ health condition is exacerbated by poor nutrition levels. There is one government hospital, but workers said the doctors there recommended expensive tests. The loom operator Chandra Bhushan Yadav got a medical bill of Rs.750 when he went to a doctor for a mild fever. With no industrial safety equipment, no workplace safety precautions and no health insurance, Bhiwandi power looms have taken their toll on the lives of their workers. “A 35-year-old looks like he is 50,” said Yadav.

In this unregulated industry, exploitation is par for the course and has always been there. Chavhan said that in the early years one worker used to manage two looms, but now one man works eight to 12 looms but “the salaries have not increased proportionately”. Sheikh put it more succinctly: “The loom owners make cloth worth Rs.10,000, and we earn Rs.300 out of that.”

Bhiwandi actually has much to recommend it, but its strengths have never been used to benefit the workers. A century-old history of textile production and its strategic location along National Highways 3 and 8 have meant that both the Maharashtra government and the Centre have included it in their smart city plans. The town is a logistics hub with a giant sprawl of warehouses and a huge e-commerce clientele, although this has more to do with private initiatives than with government effort.

As one of the top textile-producing zones, Bhiwandi is entitled to the Union Budget’s textile upgradation plan. Chavhan laughs at the naivete of expecting anything from this and shakes his head, saying that nothing trickles down to benefit Bhiwandi. Sheikh said that in 2008 the Centre had allocated Rs.70 crore for the development of a power loom cluster. No one knows where that money has gone.

Bhiwandi shifted from handloom to power loom in the 1950s. Although technology has changed, Bhiwandi continues to specialise in “the grey” fabric, a cloth of an indeterminate hue that is sent to other centres for dyeing. Bhiwandi’s trade associations complain that no effort has been made to provide processing facilities in Bhiwandi and expand the town’s textile profile, which would fetch higher prices for the fabric. It is estimated that the grey is currently sold at Rs.10 to 12 a metre and the price would go up to Rs.150 a metre.

Bhiwandi is notorious for power thefts, and the problem continues even after Torrent Power, a private company responsible for power distribution, was established, although apparently to a lesser extent. Loom owners complain that the power tariff, Rs.30,000 a month, is too high. Considering that the looms run without rest, it seems low. Besides, as Chavhan wryly commented: “Ask them if they pay those bills and how much of the power they use comes from a legal connection.”

Textile imports and competition from other centres have also cut the profit margins of Bhiwandi’s looms. The owners are partly responsible for this predicament. In order to get the maximum profit, they wash the grey in heavily salted water before it leaves their workshops. When the cloth reaches its destination, it will be dry but permeated with salt and so weigh more. A similar trick was used by dipping the grey in oil; the oil stains did not matter because the cloth would be washed before it was dyed. Buyers in Surat and other textile-processing hubs began to boycott Bhiwandi’s grey when they found out the fraud.

This has had its impact on the workforce. Entire villages of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar depend on remittances from Bhiwandi. Despite the punishing living and working conditions, Bhiwandi could find workers. But not any more. Bhiwandi is not generating so many jobs now. The loom owners declared a fortnight’s shutdown in August. They were protesting against the rising yarn prices and declining returns from the grey fabric. They had hoped that the 15 days of “no work and no pay” would remind the workers of their dependence on the seths. At such times, the workers would usually leave for their villages to avoid expenditure on food and stay. But this time, they threw in their lot with the union, and the display of solidarity worked. The owners called off the lockout in nine days.

The workers were in a quandary —not having work is as hellish as the work itself. The loom operator Manikchand Chauhan summed it up poignantly: “There is nothing of any worth in this place. We are here just to make money, and sometimes they even try and take that from us.”

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