Tag Archives: history

Happy Birthday, Mr Commissioner

Published in Mumbai Mirror as “Happy Birthday, Mr MC” on 2 July 2015.

It is a year of missed anniversaries in Mumbai. The downpour which shut down the city on 19 June 2015 not only forced the Shiv Sena to cancel its Golden Jubilee celebrations, but to answer for more than two decades running a municipality larger than many state governments. While the ruling party must indeed be held to account, another, much older, anniversary that passed unnoticed should help explain why India’s oldest and wealthiest civic body remains such a mess. In 150 years there has been hardly any structural change in the institutions of municipal government in Mumbai.

Arthur Travers Crawford, first Municipal Commissioner of Bombay (1865-71)
Arthur Travers Crawford, first Municipal Commissioner of Bombay (1865-71)

On 1 July 1865, the first “Municipal Commissioner for the Town and Island of Bombay”, Arthur Trawers Crawford, was appointed by the Government of Bombay, along with the predecessor to today’s municipal Corporators – a body of “Justices of the Peace”. The city until then was a swampy archipelago focussed on trading, where government was minimal and ad-hoc. JPs had scant powers over policing and conservancy, to collect taxes, or keep the streets drained and swept. Funds were vested in three commissioners answering directly to government, a “triumvirate” which often worked at cross-purposes.

While moving the new Act of 1865 for a single “Chief Executive” for Mumbai along with Sir Jamshetji Jeejeebhoy in the Governor’s Council, its co-sponsor Walter Cassels commented that “the town does not want municipal officers with the pen of a ready writer, but with brooms that sweep clean”. Crawford set about his task with zeal – laying out streets and markets, improving sanitation and water supply. The JPs soon complained they had no power over his purse strings. Much like today’s appointees, Crawford was then transferred, the “man at the top” whose “head must roll”.

Indian landlords and merchants also demanded their say in civic affairs proportionate to Crawford’s hiked property taxes. It was in the wake of this agitation against hiked rates that a young Pherozeshah Mehta returned from England in 1869 to take up their cause of “no taxation without representation”, and with K.T. Telang helped create the “local self-government” we know in Mumbai today. With the liberal Viceroy Lord Ripon – who laid the founding stone for the BMC Head Office where his statue now stands – Sir Pherozeshah authored the 1888 BMC Act, still the city’s current constitution. This trod a wise path between a colonial executive and the few wealthy Indians who qualified to vote or be elected to the corporation.

By the time “Sir PM” passed away in 1915, Gandhi had just returned to discover his “real India” in the villages, not colonial cities like Bombay. As he toured the countryside to mobilise the masses, by 1922, the British began opening voting to rent-payers, not just property tax-payers. In 1936 the minimum qualification to vote was further reduced from Rs 10 to Rs 5 rent. But beyond expanding the voter franchise and the extending the city limits in 1950 and 1956, by Independence, reforms to urban governance remained stillborn. Even as “Greater Mumbai” grew in size and scale, it was and remains governed by the same 1888 Act, based on the 1865 idea of vesting all executive power in a single, unelected MC.

While Independence did little to transform urban governance, globalisation has now made cities pivotal to the development of their regional and national economies. Today most of Mumbai’s municipal wards are now more populous than most US or European cities, but are still overseen by a single Assistant Commissioner. In Britain – where Lord Ripon’s reforms originated – the Corporator-Commissioner system was replaced with Town Councils in the 70s, though elected urban bodies have made a comeback, especially in London. In the US, popular elected government – especially for city Mayor – has long been a fact of urban life.

In the past decade national laws such as the 74th Amendment and RTI have helped transform urban instititions through slow and constant citizen pressure. Even as “Smart Cities” are being planned all over India, and new cities like Vasai-Virar are created on the same old Victorian model, serious proposals for urban reform remain absent.

India has had an elected Prime Minister under a democratic Constitution for more than sixty years, and the State of Maharashtra its own Assembly and Chief Minister for more than fifty years. Though the Sena briefly experimented with Calcutta’s Mayor-in-Council system in Mumbai in 1989, Mumbai’s Mayor has since 1931 been a ceremonial leader of the House. While Commissioners may come and go, a popular Mayor elected by and responsible to all citizens of Greater Mumbai would be a belated birthday gift for the old Urbs Prima in Indis.

हॅपी बर्थडे, मिस्टर कमिशनर!

Marathi translation by Avadhoot of “Happy Birthday, Mr MC” originally published in Mumbai Mirror on 2 July 2015. 

मुंबईसाठी हे वर्ष वर्धापनदिन, जयंती वगैरेंसारखे अनेक दिवस चुकवणारं ठरलं. १९ जून २०१५ रोजी झालेल्या पावसाने शहर बंद पाडलं आणि शिवसेनेला आपला सुवर्ण महोत्सवी समारंभ रद्द करावा लागला. कित्येक राज्य सरकारांपेक्षाही मोठ्या असलेल्या इथल्या महानगरपालिकेवर गेली दोन दशकं शिवसेनेचीच सत्ता होती, त्यामुळे पावसाने शहर बंद पडल्यावर पक्षाला अनेक प्रश्नांनाही सामोरं जावं लागलं. भारतातील ही सर्वांत जुनी महानगरपालिका एवढ्या अनागोंदीमध्ये का आहे, याचं एक उत्तर सत्ताधारी पक्षाच्या अकार्यक्षमतेमध्ये आहेच, पण त्याहूनही तपशीलवार उत्तर हवं असल्यास विस्मरणात गेलेल्या एका जयंती दिवसाची दखल घ्यावी लागेल. मुंबईच्या महानगरपालिका प्रशासनातील विभागांमध्ये गेल्या दीडशे वर्षांत क्वचित रचनात्मक बदल झालेले आहेत.

Arthur Travers Crawford, first Municipal Commissioner (1865) आर्थर ट्रॉवर्स क्रॉफर्ड, पहिले शहर महागरपालिका आयुक्त (१८६५)

तत्कालीन मुंबई सरकारने १ जुलै १८६५ रोजी पहिले ‘म्युनिसिपल कमिशनर फॉर द टाउन अँड आयलँड ऑफ बॉम्बे’ (मुंबई शहर व बेट महागरपालिका आयुक्त) आर्थर ट्रॉवर्स क्रॉफर्ड यांची नियुक्ती केली. शिवाय आता नगरसेवक म्हणून ओळखल्या जाणारे सदस्य- ‘शांततेचे न्यायदूत’ही याच दिवशी नियुक्त करण्यात आले. तोपर्यंत या बेटरूपी शहराचा प्रशासकीय कारभार त्या त्या कामापुरता आणि अतिशय अल्प हस्तक्षेप करणारा होता. पोलीस प्रशासन व मच्छिमारी आणि नाविक व्यवहार असोत की रस्ते स्वच्छ व सुके ठेवण्यासाठीची कार्यवाही असो, यांपैकी कशासंबंधीही पुरेसे अधिकार न्यायदूतांकडे नव्हते. प्रशासकीय निधी तीन आयुक्तांच्या अखत्यारित येत असे आणि हे प्रशासकीय ‘त्रिकूट’ अनेकदा एकमेकांच्या विरोधी जाणाऱ्या कारणांसाठी कार्यरत राहायचं.

गव्हर्नर मंडळामध्ये शहराचे प्रतिनिधित्व सर जमशेटजी जीजीभॉय करत असताना, मुंबईसाठी एकसंध ‘मुख्य कार्यकारिणी’ही असायला हवी यासंबंधीचा नवा कायदा १८६५ साली करण्यात आला; त्यावेळी या कायद्याचे सहप्रवर्तक वॉल्टर कॅसेल्स म्हणाले होते की, ‘एखाद्या तयार लेखकासारखे लेखण्या वागवणारे महानगरपालिका अधिकारी या शहराला नको आहेत, उलट स्वच्छ फटकारे मारणाऱ्या केरसुण्या त्यांच्या हातात असणे जास्त गरजेचे आहे.’ क्रॉफर्ड यांनी आपले काम उत्साहाने सुरू केले- रस्ते व बाजारपेठांची व्यवस्था लावणं, स्वच्छता व पाणी पुरवठ्यामध्ये सुधारणा यांसंबंधी कार्यवाही तत्काळ सुरू झाली. लगेचच आयुक्तांच्या आर्थिक बटव्यावर अंकुश ठेवण्यासंबंधी आपल्याला काहीच अधिकार नसल्याची तक्रार न्यायदूतांनी करायला सुरुवात केली. आजच्या काळाप्रमाणेच क्रॉफर्ड यांची बदली करण्यात आली, ‘वरिष्ठ पदावरील व्यक्तीच्या डोक्यावर टांगती तलवार राहायलाच हवी’.

शिवाय, क्रॉफर्ड यांनी वाढवलेल्या मालमत्ता कराच्या प्रमाणात नागरी व्यवहारांमध्ये आपल्याला अधिकार द्यावेत, अशी मागणी भारतीय जमीनदार व व्यापारी वर्गाने केली. वाढलेल्या कराला झालेल्या या विरोधामधूनच ‘प्रतिनिधित्व नसेल तर कर नाही’ ही मागणी पुढे आली; इंग्लंडहून १८६९ साली परतलेले तरूण फिरोझशहा मेहता यांनी या मागणीसाठी पुढाकार घेतला. आता मुंबईत रूढ असलेल्या ‘स्थानिक स्वराज्या’च्या निर्मितीसाठी के.टी. तेलंग यांचा हातभार लागला. मुंबई महानगरपालिका मुख्य कार्यालयाच्या इमारतीचा पाया रचणारे उदारमतवादी व्हाइसरॉय लॉर्ड रिपन (ज्यांचा या कार्यालयात पुतळाही आहे) यांच्यासोबत सर फिरोझशहा यांनी मुंबई महानगरपालिका कायदा १८८८ तयार केला आणि हाच कायदा शहराची घटना म्हणून सध्याही वापरला जातो. यामुळे वसाहतिक सरकारी कार्यकारिणी आणि मत देण्याचा वा पालिकेत निवडून जाण्याचा अधिकार असलेले मोजके श्रीमंत भारतीय यांच्यातील सामोपचाराचा मार्ग हुशारीने बनवण्यात आला.

सर पीएम’ (फिरोझशहा मेहता) यांचे १९१५ साली निधन झाले, त्याच दरम्यान देशात परतलेल्या गांधींना ‘खऱ्या भारता’चा शोध खेड्यांमध्ये घ्यायचा होता, मुंबईसारख्या वसाहतिक शहरांमध्ये नाही. जनतेमध्ये ऊर्जा पेरण्यासाठी गांधी ग्रामीण भागाचा दौरा करत असताना, ब्रिटिशांनी मालमत्ता करदात्यांसोबतच भाडे देणाऱ्यांनाही मतदानाचा अधिकार प्रदान केला. १९३६ साली मतदानाच्या किमान अर्हतेसाठीचे भाडे दहा रुपयांवरून पाच रुपयांपर्यंत खाली आणण्यात आले. स्वातंत्र्यानंतर मतदारांच्या अधिकारांची कक्षा वाढलीच, शिवाय १९५० व १९५६ या वर्षांमध्ये शहराची सीमाही वाढवण्यात आली, परंतु शहरी प्रशासनासंबंधी सुधारणा लगोलग झाल्या नाहीत. ‘बृहन्मुंबई’ आकाराने आणि प्रमाणाने वाढत गेली, पण तिचे प्रशासन १८८८च्या कायद्याद्वारेच करण्यात येत होते; आणि सर्व कार्यकारी अधिकार एकाच महानगरपालिका आयुक्ताकडे असण्याच्या १८६५ सालच्या कल्पनेवरच हा कायदा आधारलेला होता.

शहरी प्रशासनातील बदलासाठी स्वातंत्र्याचा तसा फायदा नाही, पण आता जागतिकीकरणामुळे शहरांची भूमिका त्या त्या प्रांतीय व राष्ट्रीय अर्थव्यवस्थांसाठी अत्यंत महत्त्वाची ठरणार आहे. सध्या मुंबईतील अनेक पालिका विभाग हे अमेरिका व युरोपातील एखाद्या शहरापेक्षाही जास्त लोकसंख्येचे आहेत, पण त्यांच्या देखरेखीचे काम एकटा सह-आयुक्त करत असतो. लॉर्ड रिपन यांच्या सुधारणा जिथून सुरू झाल्या त्या ब्रिटनमध्ये नगरसेवक-आयुक्त अशी व्यवस्था जाऊन १९७०च्या दशकात ‘टाउन कौन्सिल’ (शहर कार्यकारी मंडळ) अस्तित्वात आले; आणि विशेषकरून इंग्लंडमध्ये लोकनियुक्त शहरी मंडळं उभी राहिली. अमेरिकेमध्ये शहरी जीवनात लोकनियुक्त सरकार- विशेषतः ‘मेयर’ (महापौर) हे पद आधीपासूनच रुजलेले आहे.

गेल्या दशकामध्ये ७४वी घटनादुरुस्ती व माहिती अधिकार कायदा अशा काही राष्ट्रीय कायद्यांमधून शक्य झालेल्या धीम्या पण नियमित नागरी दबावामुळे शहरी आस्थापनांमध्ये काही बदल झालेले दिसतात. देशभरात ‘स्मार्ट सिटी’ उभारण्याच्या योजना आखण्यात येत असताना वसई-विरारसारखी नवी शहरं मात्र त्याच जुन्या व्हिक्टोरियन प्रारूपावरून उभी राहत आहेत. शहर नूतनीकरणासाठी काही गंभीर प्रस्ताव मात्र तयार केले जात नाहीत.

भारतामध्ये साठहून अधिक वर्षं लोकशाही राज्यघटनेच्या चौकटीत लोकनियुक्त पंतप्रधान देशाचा कारभार पाहण्याची कामगिरी पार पाडत आहेत आणि महाराष्ट्र राज्याचा कारभार पाहण्याचे काम पन्नासहून अधिक वर्षं विधानसभा व मुख्यमंत्री करत आहेत. शिवसेनेने १९८९मध्ये मुंबईत कलकत्त्याप्रमाणे ‘कार्यकारी मंडळातील महापौरा’चा तात्पुरता प्रयोग करून पाहिला, अन्यथा १९३१पासून मुंबईचा महापौर हा सभागृहाचा औपचारिक नेता राहिलेला आहे. आयुक्त येतील आणि जातील, परंतु बृह्नमुंबईच्या सर्व नागरिकांनी निवडून दिलेला व त्यांना उत्तरादायी असलेला महापौर हीच भारतातील या सर्वांत जुन्या पहिल्या शहराला दिलेली वाढदिवसाची भेट ठरेल.

Do Buildings Have Agency?

Published in shorter form as “Do Buildings Have Agency?” in Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai), Vol XLVI No.30, 23 July 2011

Neera Adarkar, ed., The Chawls of Mumbai: Galleries of Life (Gurgaon: imprintOne, 2011)

Can built forms have their own subjectivity? Architects, geographers and urban planners would surely answer this question in the affirmative. By contrast, most historians and social scientists have long viewed all non-human artefacts as “socially constructed”, and the structure and agency of the physical environment has remained weakly conceptualised, even in urban studies.

Given the number of published works on the deindustrialisation of Mumbai and the decline of its textile industry – including an award-winning oral history of mill workersi co-authored by the editor of this new anthology on chawls – it is significant that the most ubiquitous form of working-class housing in the Mumbai had not yet been studied in any depth until nowii. Galleries of Life is a salutary exploration of the history, architecture, culture and politics of chawls which creatively examines the tension between historical nostalgia and contemporary urban change in Mumbai.

Buildings can nurture, constrain, limit and transform those who inhabit or pass through them. Generic typologies mass produced on an industrial scale – apartments, tenements, chawls, skyscrapers and slums – are generative of their peculiar milieus and practices. Like other forms of housing, Mumbai’s iconic chawls are basically physical containers which give shelter and provide shape to social reproduction. But urban housing and the built environment can “act back” on communities and society. Housing as social space can signify a bundle of rights and claims, a locus of legal and property relations, a stage for politics and performance, and a set of resources for survival and mobility.

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A Rule of Property for Bombay

This book review appeared in edited form as “Micro-History of Mumbai” in Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai), Vol XLV No.36, 4 September 2010.

Mariam Dossal, Theatre of Conflict, City of Hope: Mumbai, 1660 to Present Times (New Delhi: Oxford University Press India, 2010).

Historian Mariam Dossal’s new book on Bombay/Mumbai is a major contribution to a flourishing genre of new urban histories in South Asia, and a scholarly cross-over into a large-format, illustrated urban heritage books. This is Dossal’s second major monograph on Bombay, following her Imperial Designs and Indian Realities (1991) on the infrastructure and planning of the colonial city from 1845-1875. Her new book focuses on “the ways in which the politics of land use have impacted on the lives and living conditions of Bombay’s inhabitants” (xxiii) with “contested space as its central concern”.

The book seeks to explain historically how “expensive private property dominates almost every aspect of life” (xix) to the detriment of the environment, health and happiness of Mumbai’s citizens. Dossal’s work breaks new ground in its use of new sources to shine a light on a central thread of colonial and urban history in Bombay.

Land is one of the enduring themes of South Asian agrarian and colonial historiography. But the survey, settlement, and mapping of lands in cities – and the formation of a market for private property in urban land – remains under-investigated by historians. Marxist social history, premised on the opposition of industrial capitalists and wage labourers, relegated landlords and landed property to an ambigious “third space” in the historical geography of urban development.

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Open Historical Maps: Crowdsourcing, Open Source GIS, and the Research Web

Talk and presentation with Schuyler Erle to the ABCD GIS Seminar Series, Harvard University, 15 April 2009.

Our presentation will show how open source GIS and curated “crowdsourcing” can create an infinite archive of places for digital historians and ethnographers. While the importance of space and place to their research has long been acknowledged by social scientists, there remains a wide gap between their theoretical concerns and the data-driven empiricism of GIS. For those without technical or database skills, maps and geodata are mostly commonly to illustrate rather than advance an argument. However the web can render the tacit knowledge of geography implicit in most historical and ethographic narratives available to the scholars in entirely new forms. We will showcase our ongoing work with the Maps Division of the New York Public Library on a web-based Map Rectifier and Digitizer, a platform for scholars and entusiasts to georeference scanned historical maps and digitize historical features of cities and the environment.

SHEKHAR KRISHNAN is a researcher and activist pursuing his doctorate in History and Anthropology of Science Technology & Society (STS) at MIT, where his research on the history of technology and the urban environment in colonial Bombay and western India. He has been a project fellow with Zotero at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. With Schuyler Erle, he manages geo-spatial web projects for the New York Public Library and the Network in Canadian History of the Environment (NiCHE)

SCHUYLER ERLE has been a free and open source software developer, project leader, and evangelist for over a decade. He is a co-author of Mapping Hacks and Google Maps Hacks, both published by O’Reilly Media. He currently lives in New York City, where he leads EntropyFree, a technology consultancy focused on geographic information systems (GIS), natural language processing, academic computing and humanitarian aid.

Urban Obduracy: Unbuilding Cities

Anique Hommels, Unbuilding Cities: Obduracy in Urban Socio-Technical Change. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2005.

While sharing a common intellectual genealogy, the contemporary disciplines of science and technology studies (STS) and urban studies have followed divergent paths of development, and flourished in largely separated academic compartments. Anique Hommels’ Unbuilding the City argues for the complementarity of the approaches of STS and urban studies in explaining the phenomenon of urban “obduracy” and strategies for “unbuilding” the city. Linking together the concepts drawn from actor-network theory and constructivist studies of socio-technical change, the book contains three case studies of postwar urban development in the Dutch cities of Utrecht, Maastricht and Amsterdam.

How can we understand urban structures as more than simple technical or physical artifacts? How can we explain the history of cities and their power relations as socio-technical ensembles? Does the urban built environment embed the tacit knowledge of its original planners and builders, such that their norms and values continue to shape the relations of city-dwellers in subsequent generations? In a well-known essay on the question “do artifacts have politics?”, Langdon Winner has cited the example of the low-lying bridges designed by planner Robert Moses in New York, whose passages were too low to permit movement by public buses between the freeways and beaches of Long Island. Moses’ bridges prevented access to these elite white spaces of recreation by inner-city black populations, thus inscribing a permanent spatial discrimination into the design of seemingly apolitical technical artifact.

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A History of Modern Computing

Paul Ceruzzi, A History of Modern Computing.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.

In my own lifetime of thirty years, global society has been transformed by the widespread availability of inexpensive computing technology. Indeed, only within the past ten years, a new combination of commoditised hardware, software, and network infrastructure has put this technology within reach of millions of new people. A certain taint of presentism is, therefore, inevitable in any attempt to write the history of computing in our time, as we are positioned at a particular point in a dynamic of ongoing social and technical change. As with earlier historians of the “industrial revolution”, we must assess the historicity of the information or “digital revolution” both as historical narratives and popular common sense.

This presentism presents particular challenges to the historian in his or her craft of framing a coherent narrative of technological development. Here I will consider different approaches to the history of computing which confront both the the familiar challenges of a historian of technology, as well as the unique aspects of computing as an object of historical inquiry. In the introduction to his A History of Modern Computing, Paul Ceruzzi discusses two distinct approaches to the history of computing, what he calls the technological systems approach and the social constructionist approach. What are the objects of inquiry of these two approaches? Continue reading A History of Modern Computing

The Urban Turn

This is a transcript of symposium on urban history held in December 2002 with historians and sociologists Gyan Prakash, Jairus Banaji, Sujata Patel and Rajnarayan Chandavarkar. You can also download the PDF of the transcript.

This symposium was organised by PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge Action & Research) at the Bombay Paperie, Mumbai. Thanks to Shonali Sarda for transcription and Neeta Premchand for hosting the event.

GYAN PRAKASH is Professor of History at Princeton University, U.S.A. and a member of the Subaltern Studies Editorial Collective. He is the author of Bonded Histories: Genealogies of Labour Servitude in Colonial India (Cambridge, 1990), Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India (Princeton, 1999), and has written several articles and edited several volumes on colonial history and historiography.

JAIRUS BANAJI is a historian and independent scholar based in Mumbai. He worked with unions in Bombay through the eighties, when he published, with Rohini Hensman, Beyond Multinationalism: Management Policy and Bargaining Relationships in International Companies (Delhi: Sage, 1990). His most recent book is Agrarian Change in Late Antiquity: Gold, Labour, and Aristocratic Dominance (Oxford, 2002).

SUJATA PATEL is Professor and Head of the Department of Sociology at University of Pune. She is the co-editor, with Alice Thorner, of Bombay: Metaphor for Modern Culture and Bombay: Mosaic of Modern India (both Delhi: Oxford India, 1995), and, with Jim Masselos, of Bombay and Mumbai: The City in Transition (Delhi: Oxford India, 2003).

RAJ CHANDAVARKAR is a historian and is Director of the Centre for South Asian Studies, Cambridge University, U.K., where he is a Fellow of Trinity College. He is the author of The Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India: Business Strategies and the Working Class in Bombay 1900-1940 (Cambridge, 1994) and Imperial Power and Popular Politics: Class, Resistance and the State in India 1850-1890 (Cambridge, 1998).

“The Urban Turn” (December 2002)

SHEKHAR KRISHNAN: Welcome everyone, on behalf of PUKAR. The panel discussion at The Bombay Paperie tonight is called “The Urban Turn”, which signifies many different things to many different people. What we wanted to do tonight was to honour the people who are sitting here, four distinguished historians and sociologists who have worked on Bombay in one aspect or the other. Continue reading The Urban Turn

The Worlds of Indian Industrial Labour

Originally published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London, Fall 2001.

Jan Breman, Karin Kapadia, Jonathan Parry, eds., The Worlds of Indian Industrial Labour (Contributions to Indian Sociology, Occassional Studies 9). New Delhi and London: Sage Publications, 1999.

Marking both a renewal of interest in labour studies and an important disciplinary shift, the publication of this anthology is a significant event. Introduced by Jonathan Parry, the fourteen essays by sociologists, anthropologists and historians in the volume include two “book-ends” introductory and concluding reviews of the respective literatures on the “organised” and “informal” sectors of the industrial economy in India, both by Jan Breman. These chart the shifts in labour studies from the narrow emphasis on the tiny formal sector of the economy — about workers’ “commitment” to the industrial setting, measures of productivity, the social profile of formal sector workers, and trade union strategies — to the much larger and unwieldy “informal” sector of the economy, incredibly neglected by research scholars. While questioning this dualism in the study of economic activity in India, Breman raises questions about the formation and coherence of the working-class or proletariat as an identity and analytical category, the diversity of forms of wage labour and industrial production — from home-based to small workshops to large factories — and the multiplicity of workers’ identities in both formal and informal occupations.

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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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