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 Mumbai Mill Lands is a fin-de-siecle 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.

The fate of the mills began to be spelled out with the new Development Control Rules for the city, framed in 1991 by Sharad Pawar’s Government, permitting the sale of a portion of the mill lands, to channel the funds into the revival of the industry. This reinvestment never in fact occurred, the money earned from the lease and sale of the lands was instead siphoned off by the millowners, and the mills closed. In the past several years, the workers saw their wages withheld, the gates of their mills arbitrarily shut, and the intimidation of union activists with underworld support.

Since 1991, cases filed in the Board of Industrial and Financial Reconstruction, requesting permission to sell surplus mill lands swelled. Managements cited the “sickness” of the mills, when the real reason lay in the skyrocketing real estate values and the chance to siphon off the money earned from revival schemes, profiting from the land deals, while they closed the units, and sold the machinery and workers for scrap. At the peak of the property boom several years ago, the value of the surplus mill lands reached somewhere around Rs 5000 crores.

With the further revision of the DC Rules proposed by the three-member committee of the BMC, the Chief Minister has shown a determination to solve this festering issue and expedite the sale of mill and other reserved industrial lands, 23% of the land of the island city. The mills and working-class chawls of central Mumbai, crushed between the congested business district and the suburbs, have in the past decade come under the combined pressure of the spiralling real estate market, the powerful lobby of builders and politicians, and the burgeoning middle-classes, starved of space.

The real casualty of this development has been Mumbai’s once-proud working-class, the mill-workers who spearheaded the trade union movement in India, and who today continue to hold out for their salaries and jobs. Historically, they have lent their strength to the calls for swadeshi and azadi, and their culture nestles in the heart of Mumbai’s growth into a vibrant industrial city, stretching back to the nineteenth century. Barely twenty years ago, the working population of “Girangaon” — the “village of mills”, a web of industrial units, chawls, markets and maidans which spreads across central Mumbai — numbered 2.5 lakhs.

This has now dwindled to less than 50 thousand, and the displaced numbers have not been reabsorbed into the city’s organised workforce. Banished into a life of casual and insecure employment, some have died of trauma or unemployment, others have taken to selling vegetables or working as security guards in the gleaming skyscrapers and offices coming up in the old mills. Most notably, it is estimated that 60-70% of the underworld’s ranks are composed of former mill-workers and their children.

Recently I met a group of young entrepreneurs, just returned from New York, who are soon to launch a online literary journal, supported by venture capital. When I asked them where they proposed to set up their office, they suggested the Raghuvanshi Mills Compound in Parel, “to get that industrial look”. A statement of postmodern chic, they were perhaps unaware that late last year, the workers of Raghuvanshi Mills took over the unit in the hope of restarting production, which had been halted for the previous three months. The owner of the mill, Hemal Thakkar, had not paid them for several months, and had not complied with a BIFR scheme to restart production to capacity. Instead he continued to sell the land. Two years earlier, Thakkar’s father Vallabbhai was shot in broad daylight by one of Arun Gawli’s lieutenants, in what many have claimed was an attempt by builders to extort money from the mill-owners.

The murder of the mills and the forcible eviction of their workers is, however, not an isolated instance of rapacious profiteering at the expense of our urban community. The aggrieved residents of Worli Seaface, who are opposing the Bandra-Worli bridge; the unfortunate neighbourhoods where new flyovers promise obstruction and pollution; and even the dying mangroves in Mahim Creek, choked by new roads and reclamations — all can all testify to this. The mills are symbolic of issues facing every resident of Mumbai, rich or poor, big or small. In these days when the prevailing orthodoxy tells us that state intervention in economic processes is to be avoided, one should think for a moment what this surrender to “market forces” means for our social fabric and overall urban design. With the removal of restrictions on land use that accompanied the 1991 DC Rules, land-grabbing has proliferated, the nexus between corrupt civic authorities, builders, and gangsters increased, as did the expansion horizontally and skywards of  new hutments and high-rises.