Phoenix Mills Bowled Over

Originally published in Lawyer’s Collective Magazine, 13 July 2000

The collapse of the Bowling Company in Lower Parel after the storm which lashed the city in the past several days perhaps pales in comparison to the larger human tragedies that took place in other parts of the metropolis this week. However, the potential for a tragedy like the landslide which occurred at Azad Nagar in Ghatkopar should not be overlooked. Luckily the entertainment outlet remained closed on Thursday, but had the bowling alleys and the cafe inside been filled to their normal capacity, hundreds of people could have perished, when the rusted stilts and columns which grounded the century-old structure gave way.

Questions have already been raised as to the integrity of the surveys undertaken barely two months ago by both the Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation engineers and the so-called independent engineers hired by the proprietors of the Bowling Company —  which certified the structural integrity and safety of the restaurants, clubs, and discos in the compound. These assurances were made public shortly after the Phoenix Mills was shut by the BMC, following the collapse of a building wall under renovation in late April. Both A D Singh, the owner of the Bowling Company, and the Ruias, the managers of Phoenix Mills, had stated that the constructions were sound, and that the public need not fear another such disaster — one precisely of the type which occurred two days ago.

The Bowling Company and the other outlets in the Phoenix Mills re-opened several weeks after this tragedy, in which five labourers were killed and twelve others injured. The offences registered against the Ruias by the Mumbai Police for violating municipal building regulations and stop-work notices were quietly forgotten, and partying at the newly christened “Phoenix Garden City” continued.

These two incidents at Phoenix Mills, raise other pressing questions about our city and its development, questions which are rarely posed in the media. Newspaper accounts stoke our anxieties about encroachments and illegal constructions on public lands, exposing the nefarious links between slumlords, bureaucrats, and corrupt urban officials for whom, it seems, the only answer is the municipal bulldozer. However, the Bowling Company, which opened just over a year ago, is itself an instance of the type of shoddy, unauthorised construction that we see spilling out onto public spaces and footpaths all over the city.

All of the lands of textile mills of central Bombay are reserved for industrial use, and governed by the Development Control Rules of the city, which were amended in 1991 to allow for the lease of portions of mill land. The funds accrued from the lease of these surplus lands were earmarked in Government schemes for reinvestment in the textile mills, to restart production and provide jobs to thousands of workers who were being retrenched by mill-owners-turned-real estate barons. While propagating a myth of “industrial sickness” which served as a ruse to exploit accelerating real estate value in the city in the early nineties, thousands of workers were harassed by mill managements, and thrown onto the streets. In order that mill-owners, their political patrons and underworld sponsors, could profit from the sale of the lands in these once-productive industrial areas.

Availing of relief schemes sanctioned by the Board of Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR) in Delhi, which granted tax relief and gave amnesties on loans for the sick mills, the owners claimed to revive textile production. Siphoning off the money from these revival and modernisation schemes, they sold or scrapped their machinery, withheld the wages and legal dues of workers, subcontracted production to the powerlooms of Bhiwandi, and harassed the workers into leaving their jobs.

Phoenix Mills and its owners, Bharat and Ashok Ruia, who had availed of several such schemes from 1977 onwards, in 1995 approached the BIFR to sanction a relief scheme which stipulated new purchases and upgradation of machinery, and reinstatement of its workers. However, from April 1998 onwards, the management arbitrarily shut the gates of the mill, vacated and demolished the departments earmarked for modernisation, and suspended and charge-sheeted workers who had been demanding regular work. All the while the future of the mill-workers was being spelled out in the high-rises, dance clubs, corporate and bank offices which were sprouting in the mill compound — while textile production was stopped, public money pocketed, and the scheme for industrial revival buried. Phoenix Mills was released from the purvey of the BIFR in 1999, by which time all its permanent staff of up to 800 workers was retrenched.

In a letter to the BMC in early 1998, the Ruias sought permission to expand the canteen and recreation facilities of the mill for, they claimed, “over 1000 workers”, whom they claim had been demanding such amenities. This fraudulent application, made at a time when the workers were being denied entry into their own workplace, was the guise for the Bowling Company, which opened in May 1999 on the site of the processing department of the mill, which was to be revived under the BIFR scheme. One former worker of Phoenix Mills remarked that the entry fee for the Bowling Company is four times the daily salary of a worker in the small-scale sweatshops of Bhiwandi, where textile production has been shifted in the past three decades, to dodge protective labour legislation and public scrutiny.

Since the collapse of the Bowling Company on Thursday, the BMC has asked the mill-owners to submit the building plan of the mill compound for further scrutiny. If such a plan exists, which is doubtful, it would show clearly that more than two-thirds of the land of the mill has been questionably redeveloped, from which the owners are making quick profits, in violation of the DC Rules and the sanctioned revival schemes. While textiles remain one of the country’s largest industries and foreign exchange earners, bowling alleys are, like real estate, speculative, fly-by-night operations. The scandalous and false statements of both municipal authorities and the proprietors of Phoenix Mills — which was made obvious in the collapse of the Bowling Company this week — should make us wonder whether our city isn’t also being leased out to those just interested in making a quick profit.