Mill on the Loss

Originally published as “Mill on the Loss” in the Indian Express Mumbai Newsline, 5 April 2000

The history of Mumbai is a narrative of the struggle over space. The fate of the mill lands of central Mumbai, and its industries and workers, is the latest chapter in this story.

 

The life of any city is not simply tied to its flows of goods, services and capital, but also to its patterns of work, leisure and movement — all of which revolve on the use of space. Throughout Mumbai’s history, claims on land and space have been the narrative thread of the most celebrated and most notorious chapters in our urban history. These range from the legendary reclamations that linked up several marshy outposts and settlements to compose the island city in the eighteenth century, to the disastrous Back Bay Reclamation Scheme in the 1920s. This scheme to fill in the Back Bay earned the name “Lloyd’s Folly”, after the bungling of the then Governor, whose plan ended in failure and infamy because of engineering mistakes, corruption, and the crash in land values during the Great Depression.

The story of the mill lands is a fin-de-sicle echo of this familiar urban theme. The historic textile mills of the city are industrial dinosaurs dotted around the city landscape, whose textile production has been eclipsed in efficiency and profitability by the sweatshop labour employed in powerlooms towns like Bhiwandi. The millowners realised long ago that the lands of the city mill compounds are more valuable than the textiles they produce, and the workers whose livelihoods they have sustained for several generations.

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The Murder of Phoenix Mills: A Case Study of Phoenix Mills

Click here to download of The Murder of Phoenix Mills (Mumbai: Lokshahi Hakk Sanghatana and Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti, April 2000).

This pamphlet was a case study of the redevelopment of the Phoenix Mills in Lower Parel, Mumbai conducted from November 1999 to March 2000 and published by the Lokshahi Hakk Sanghatana and Girangaon Bachao Andolan in Mumbai in April 2000. The views contained herein are solely those of the publishers.

Researched and written by SHEKHAR KRISHNAN

Introduction

Liberalisation and globalisation have not only refashioned the lifestyles, but also our urban landscape. In a recent article in India Todayi, a journalist has celebrated the renaissance of what she calls “Mumbai’s embarrassing eyesore”— the textile mills lands of central Bombay — as this “grim, seedy, and decidedly downmarket” area is being transformed into a new oasis of elite business and leisure. Boasting corporate offices, advertising agencies, art galleries, entertainment centres and posh restaurants, a new economy and way of life have displaced what, according to this writer, were the previously “rat-infested” mills and other parts of this “depressing district.”

This article quotes an architect who remodelled a part of the Phoenix Mills Compound into the new offices of the multinational Standard Chartered Bank, claiming that the mill “was a dead place” before its new corporate tenants arrived. Phoenix Mills now houses the residential high-rise Phoenix Towers, numerous offices and restaurants, the Bowling Company and the Fire and Ice discotheque. Nearby mills have leased their lucrative land holdings, boasting similar space and amenities. In the old industrial lands of central Bombay, gleaming high-rises now compete with chimney stacks in the urban skyline, a symbol both of “progress” and change.

That most precious commodity in our ill-planned, congested and overcrowded commercial capital, space, is up for grabs to the highest bidder. India Today shares in the excitement — central Bombay’s treasure is its “yards and yards of mill land, just waiting to be devoured.” “Everywhere poky chawls are metamorphosing into haughty highrises, pinstriped shirts are replacing blue collars, and old addas are turning into trendy little eateries.”

But what of the residents of these decrepit chawls, have they simply fled at the advance of the builders, party-goers, and advertising executives? What of the mills and textile industry, in which many of these workers and their families have worked for over a century? What of the long heritage of productive culture, and the traditions tied to these historic neighbourhoods, which nestles in the heart of Bombay’s growth as a great industrial metropolis, have the been extinguished?

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