The Spaces of Post-Industrial Mumbai

This unpublished paper was presented at SARAI ‘CITY ONE’ Conference at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi, January 2003. It records the findings of the Post-Industrial Landscapes Project which I directed at PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge Action & Research), 2000-2003.


The pivotal role that cities have played in the global shift in the dominant sectors of production from large-scale, mass manufacture of durable commodities to the provision of producer services like finance, banking, and information is by now well-established. Like many other globalising cities in the North and South, Mumbai in the nineties has witnessed a number of other dramatic transformations associated with the processes of globalisation.

These include the world-wide integration of finance and capital markets; the increasing importance of the sphere of consumption to public culture and politics; the percolation of new technologies of information and communication through computer networks, reorganising the space and time of social life and production; the decentralisation and informalisation of economic activity; and the erosion of the authority of centralised state bureaucracies and governments to regulate and control social life and production within their national territories. This set of processes are overlapping and historically contingent, and take different forms in different places.


Over the past decade in Mumbai, a debate on the changing industrial landscape of the city has been articulated by trade unionists and activists, journalists and scholars, architects, urban planners and designers, and the business and policy-making community. This emerging discourse on the city has many been voiced around many inter-connected concerns — the shrinkage and closure of manufacturing industries in the city and suburbs; the “informalisation” of manufacturing production, and the increasing exploitation of migrant labourers, women and children in this new work regime of casual and contract labour, undermining the employment base and solidarity of the old working classes; the notorious instances of high-income gentrification in former working-class neighbourhoods and industrial districts like the Mill Lands (1); as well as the fears of the “death” of the city with the flight of its industries, its declining quality of life, environmental degradation and overburdened infrastructure, and its questionable prospects for future economic growth (2).

All of these desires and anxieties about the city’s employment base and its changing economy, its spatial and social transformations in the two decades since the Bombay Textile Strike in 1981–2, have condensed into an ambiguous local discourse which accounts many of these complex changes to an overarching process of “globalisation”. To take a position on any of these issues means to also take a position on globalisation, understood as the sign of the Mumbai’s present and its future. However, no specific understanding of “globalisation” has been sought, and often ideology and rhetoric have filled the gap left by the lack of rigorous analysis of the various processes listed above. Where public criticism has emerged, it has tended to narrowly focus on symbols of a much larger process which is poorly understood.

Hence the fixation on consumerist symbols like shopping malls, five-star hotels, multiplex cinemas, gentirifed and converted factories and mills, and gated elite enclaves and ticketed zones of leisure. This narrow empirical focus on the outward features of changes seen in every city in the world which ignores a wider urban context where the basic means of work and livelihood have been specifically transformed over time and across space. In a way, this anti-globalisation rhetoric lends support to the elite fantasy of turning Mumbai into a global node for high-end services and finance, an Indian Singapore or Hong Kong (3) which it targets by participating in its monumental and superficial vision.

This essay is a preliminary attempt to situate some of these understandings and this debate in some of the changing urban spaces of Mumbai, the places where the future of a globalising city will be inscribed and lived. In the academic industry, the number of theoretical arguments, disciplinary perspectives, and discourses on globalisation have feverishly multiplied in the past decade. However, neither the recent literature on global cities, nor the earlier research on the post-industrial society, has taken seriously the particular location of cities like Mumbai in the process of the production of space of global capital. In her well-known study, Saskia Sassen has posited as a point of departure the combination of spatial dispersal of manufacturing and the global integration of services and finance which “has created a new strategic role for major cities”.

Her study of the parallel changes in the economic base, spatial organisation and social structure of London, New York and Tokyo asks how cities with such different histories and cultures could experience such a similar transformation in a relatively short period of time. “To understand the puzzle of parallel change in diverse cities requires not simply a point-by-point comparison of New York, London, and Tokyo, but a situating of these cities in a set of global processes”, examining how different cities have responded to the same dynamic. She however warns that “the term global city may be reductive and misleading if it suggests that cities are mere outcomes of a global economic machine. They are specific places whose spaces, internal dynamics, and social structure matter; indeed, we may be able to understand the global order only by analyzing why key structures of the world economy are necessarily situated in cities”.(4)

Most of the debate on global cities neglects the importance of locality: how the abstract space of global capital is made into living places by real people, through their search for livelihood and their struggles for survival. The process of restructuring is both social as well as spatial, and the social forms of Mumbai as a global city cannot be understood without reference to its spatial forms. In this essay I explore how the complex spatial and social dynamics of Bombay’s industrial landscapes in the eighties and nineties are the backdrop against which global economic processes are restructuring the city’s economic geography. These local transformations were largely set in motion in the era before the structural adjustment and liberalisation policies in the nineties.

Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR)

The Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), covering a space of 4,355 sqare kilometres, is one of the most populous urban agglomerations in the world, and contains within its boundaries the old Island City of Bombay, the Western and Eastern Suburbs of Greater Mumbai, the twin city of Navi Mumbai and its suburbs on the mainland, and adjacent parts of Thane District — including the cities of Thane and Kalyan, the Vasai-Virar and Mira-Bhayander areas, the towns of Bhiwandi, Dombivili, Ulhasnagar and Ambernath, as well as adjacent parts of Raigad District — including Panvel, Matheran, Karjat, Khopoli, Pen, and Alibaug. The MMR as a whole, and in particular the Greater Mumbai area comprising the Island City and Suburbs, has undergone a massive restructuring of urban space, land-use and employment patterns, and its overall economic and social geography in the past twenty years.

According to the Draft Regional Plan of the MMR Development Authority (MMRDA) published in 1995, the share of employment in manufacturing industries in Greater Mumbai reduced from 36% in 1980 to 28.5% in 1990, whereas trade, finance and service industries have increased their share of employment from 52.1% to 64.3% in the same period. Parallel to this shift in the employment base of the urban economy has been a decline in total employment in the old Island City, from 71.8% in 1971 to 55.7% in 1990, due to the flight of manufacturing. The Plan also established the growth of office sector employment in Greater Mumbai from 3.52 lakh units in 1980 to 6.29 lakh units in 1990, and the mushrooming of smaller establishments and production units employing less than five people was established as an overall trend in Greater Mumbai.(5)

Bombay had first developed as an industrial city through the growth and expansion of the cotton textile industry from the late nineteenth century to the nineteen forties. The textile industry was located in the central districts of the Island City, north of the old Fort and Native Town, in what has now become known as the Mill Lands. After World War II and Independence, to the fifties, sixties and seventies, the industrial base of the urban economy diversified into petroleum and chemical production, and then into petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, consumer goods and engineering industries, managed both by Indian business as well as the subsidiaries of multinational businesses. These new industries were mostly located on the eastern fringe of the Island City, in the Eastern Suburbs, and in the seventies and eighties expanded to Thane and its surrounding district, as well as the Thane-Belapur belt flanking Navi Mumbai.

Beginning in the eighties and accelerating through the nineties, the city and its surrounding region suffered a wave of closures of manufacturing industries, leading to retrenchments of organised sector workers in these industries, and spatial dispersal and decentralisation of production to peripheral areas both within the MMR, and outside of it.(6) This historical process of deindustrialisation of the city is leading to the emergence of what many now recognise as a post-industrial urban economy. This new economic landscape is increasingly dominated on the one hand by capital-intensive service sector industries such as finance and producer services, software, mass media and entertainment, communications and information technologies, and residential and commercial real estate and property development.

On the other hand, the new economic landscape is also enveloped by labour-intensive and casualised production of electronics, garments, plastics, consumer goods and other commodities in small workshops, markets, households and in slums and informal settlements scattered across the city. With the closure and dismantling of the old manufacturing industies, this “informal” sector has emerged from the interstices of the urban economy to become the backbone of mass economic production and employment generation in the city and region. These low-income occupations, with exploitative working conditions, casualised labour, and flexible production, contrast with the high-income occupations in the emerging service sector industries. These two models of employment and production are the opposite ends of an continuum whose intermediary occupational strata — organised sector industrial employment and middle-class service employment — are being polarised in the class structure of the post-industrial city.

There were several larger phenomena which fuelled this historic shift in the eighties and nineties, six of which I shall outline here. Firstly, this situation was compounded by years of financial mismanagement, and neglect of upgradation of plants, machinery, and technology, across many industries in Greater Mumbai and the MMR. This was combined with a narrative of “industrial sickness”(7) propagated by industrialists as a public alibi for restructuring and closure in the eighties, as well as a ruse to attract financial incentives for modernisation through institutional mechanisms like the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR). These funds were often diverted from their intended purposes, and tax breaks granted under BIFR and other sanctioned revival schemes were in many cases used to siphon off money other enterprises and uses by businesses intent on restructuring and diversifying.

Secondly, the seventies and eighties witnessed a shift in the urban labour market, and an overall decline in new recruitments and employment in manufacturing industries. In the fifties and sixties, a time of expansion and growth, industrial relations were institutionalised through legislation, protection, and a collective bargaining structure for the organised private and public sector industries and their trade unions. However, from the seventies onwards, larger changes in the regional labour market resulted in a decline in recruitment, and a contraction of permanent employment in the eighties through non-filling of vacancies and natural wastage, combined with increased outsourcing of production.(8) This set the stage for wave of voluntary retirement schemes (VRS) and large-scale retrenchments that became common in the mid-nineties, eroding the basis of organised labour and foretelling cut-backs and closures in most of the city’s organised manufacturing industries — textiles, pharmaceuticals, chemicals and petrochemicals, engineering and consumer goods.

Thirdly, as a result of the above phenomenon, a new period of industrial relations emerged in the eighties, with the collective bargaining power of trade unions being rolled back, and the balance of power shifting to managements after the union expansion of the sixties and seventies. The decade after the Bombay Textile Strike in 1981–2 marked the height of this management offensive against organised labour, with a wave of illegal lockouts called by managements across the city, resulting in prolonged disputes with workers, strikes and general unrest across industry, and heightened rivalry between unions in the same industries. A new style of management — intent on restructuring their units and flexibilising production at the expense of previous negotiated settlements with unions — was matched by a new style of unionism, increasingly strident, spontaneous, and defensive of its shrinking base in the organised sector workforce. The most well-known example of this new style of union leadership was that of Datta Samant during the prolonged Bombay Textile Strike in 1982–1983. By the beginning of the liberalisation era, the old system of industrial relations had largely broken down, and trade unions entered the nineties lacking in direction and strategies for growth.

Fourthly, from the seventies onwards, the introduction of development controls and policy instruments by planning authorties aimed at the decongestion of Greater Mumbai. The Industrial Location Policy of 1974 prohibited the setting up of new units, or expansion of existing units — except small-scale industries — in the Greater Mumbai, Thane and Mira-Bhayander zones of the MMR. However, this policy was obviated by the decline of manufacturing industries in this area, which against the projections of planners, rather than growing to 14 lakh employed by 1991, had stagnated at about 6 lakh employed. Revisions to the Industrial Location Policy in 1992 dropped the old classification of industry on the basis of scale and size, and adopted environmental and value-based criteria for regulating location of so-called “non-polluting”, “high-tech” and “high-value” industries. The Office Location Policy notified in 1977 by the Government, and made part of the Development Control (DC) Rules in 1991, sought a ban on new offices in South Bombay, a measure which was similarly belied by illegal conversions of existing establishments, and the unexpectedly rapid growth of the office sector throughout the city at the rate of 78% from 1980 to 1990.

Fifth, a speculative boom in the property and real estate markets in the nineties undermined manufacturing units in former industrial lands, emerging as new commercial and residential suburbs. The most renowned case of this form of redevelopment has been in the Mill Lands of Central Mumbai. However, suburbs like Chembur, Mulund, Bhandup have also witnessed a flurry of middle-class and upper-middle class property development in the late nineties, accompanied by a demographic shift noticed in the latest census round, where the Eastern Suburbs have recorded a significant rise in population. In many of these cases, the myth of “industrial sickness” described above became a device for exploiting the property values of these lands under various revival schemes which provided for redevelopment of portions of lands previously reserved for industrial use.

Finally, the sixth phenomenon, and the one most central to the processes outlined above, the decentralisation and informalisation of production processes across industries in the city and region gained pace in the eighties and nineties, with industries opting to subcontract stages of the production process either to temporary (badli) labourers inside the space of the factory, or to outside contractors and agents, to get the work done more cheaply or efficiently than their own workforces.(9)

The time, space and organisation of industrial production has thus been dramatically transformed. Processes formerly housed in a single space, such as a composite textilemill which contained every stage of production from raw cotton to finished fabrics, were outsourced to spatially dispersed subcontracting chains. The growth of these chains is underpinned by the emergence of new forms of casual and contract labour, and the rise to prominence of labour-intensive small workshops, households, slums and informal settlements beyond the pale of the legal protections and regulations that govern the formal sector economy.

Mumbai Mill Lands

Much of the public debate on deindustrialisation has been articulated around the fate of Mumbai’s historic cotton textile mills, whose vast empty compounds in the city centre are iconic of the economic transformation in the city and region. (12) The Mumbai Mill Lands comprise the central districts of the Island City of Bombay, from Mahalaxmi and Byculla in the south, to Worli, Lower Parel and Prabhadevi in the west, and Parel, Lalbaug and Dadar in the north. Dotted throughout these areas are 58 barely functioning or closed composite textile mills, 33 privately owned, one managed by the Maharashtra State Textile Corporation (MSTC), and 25 of which are managed by the National Textile Corporation (NTC), the public sector textile company formed in the early seventies by Indira Gandhi’s programme of nationalisation. The network of textile mills, residential chawls, neighbourhoods, markets and maidans nestles in the heart of Mumbai, and is known by its residents as “Girangaon”, the “village of mills”. In many romantic and scholarly accounts, Girangaon is hailed as the birthplace of the India’s industrial modernity. Its working class was central to the growth of the trade union and nationalist movements in India (13), and this district was the fulcrum of Mumbai’s working-class culture and politics until the twilight of the textile industry in the seventies and eighties.

The Mumbai textile industry had peaked in productivity, employment, and competitiveness by the forties, and its decline became evident by the sixties, accountable to many of the phenomena sketched above. From the fifties onwards, the textile production process was decentralised and subcontracted to the powerloom sector in the town of Bhiwandi in Thane District (and to other towns in Maharashtra like Malegaon and Ichalkaranji), reflecting both a change of technology and industrial organisation, as well as a spatial shift to the suburbs and hinterland. By the time of the Bombay Textile Strike in the early eighties, the powerloom sector had long eclipsed the composite mills in efficiency, profitability, and prospects for growth. From 1955 to 1989, the output of the powerloom sector of the textile industry had grown from 299 million metres to 3680 million metres of cloth, at the rate of growth of 7.9 % per annum. In contrast, the mill sector’s share of total production of textiles went from 74.2% of all textile production to 21.5% in the same period.

The steady rise in production in the powerloom sector compensated for the decrease in the mill sector’s output, and total production of textiles in the country continues to rise. Taken along with the ready-made garment sector, the market for which expanded in the seventies and eighties, textiles remain one of India’s prime sources of foreign exchange and export earnings. The rapid growth of the powerlooms over the composite textile mills is accountable to several factors — low wages and sweated conditions of work, minimal overheads and capital investment, evasion of protective labour laws and excise duties, and other concessions which the industry enjoyed before the Government’s New Textile Policy in 1985, and the industry’s overall flexibility in responding to market swings and consumer demand.

This flexibility of production is ensured by a casualised workforce in the powerloom sector, which enjoys no security of employment or other amenities and welfare measures, unlike their counterparts in the mill sector of the industry.(14) Unlike in the mill sector, whose workers were amongst the most powerful and privileged in any industry in the country, the powerloom sector works entirely on contract and casual labour, and is organised around small-scale workshops employing less than fifty workers per unit, again unlike the large-scale textile mills which employed organised workforces numbering into the thousands.

With the rise in real estate values through Greater Mumbai which began in the late eighties and peaked in the mid-nineties, the Mill Lands emerged as more valuable for their potential redevelopment as a new commercial and residential district in the heart of the Island City, than as a centre for manufacturing and textile production. The steady attrition of workers by mill managements, and shifting of production out of the Mill Lands, after the inconclusive end of Textile Strike in 1983, accelerated with the skyrocketing of real estate values in Mumbai in the nineties.

Twenty years ago, the Mill Lands had a population of around 2.5 lakh people, and many activists now claim that this population has now dwindled to around 50,000 or 60,000. According to the latest census data from 2001, Parel and Dadar have recorded the sharpest decline of population of any of the cenusus wards of Greater Mumbai. The combined market value of the 600 acres of real estate in the Mill Lands in the mid-nineties was estimated at around Rs 5000 crores. The vestiges of the industry and the swathes of land that the mill compounds occupy soon came under the combined pressure of down-town businesses seeking to shift out of the congested districts of South Mumbai, and a nexus of property developers and criminal mafias, politicians and party-affiliated unionists of the Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh (RMMS), and mill owners turned land-lords, all sought to profit from vast properties in the Mill Lands.


Land-use and development policy began to spell out some of these changes, with the amendments to the Development Control (DC) rules the city in 1991, specifically in rules 58.1 and 58.2 which addressed the Mill Lands. These new rules permitted portions of the “surplus land” within mill compounds to be redeveloped, and under rule 58.2, the funds accrued from this redevelopment was to be invested in the revival and modernisation of production, and in generating employment for mill workers. Alternatively, under rule 58.1, the spaces of the mills which were completely unviable were to be divided into thirds, one third for low-cost housing to be developed by the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA), one third for to be developed for civic amenties like schools, educational and cultural institutions, housing infrastructure and open spaces, by the Municipal Corporation, and the last third was reserved for development by the mill owner.(15)

In February 1996, the Government appointed a committee led by architect Charles Correa to suggest plans for integrated redevelopment of the surplus Mill Lands. Many mill-owners in the city refused to cooperate with the study group and denied them access to the privately-run mills to conduct their survey and study, which was aimed at the framing of an integrated development policy for the entire Mill Lands. The scope of the group’s work was thus restricted to the mills owned by the public sector NTC, which only covered one fourth of the total area of the Mill Lands. The committee report has, to date, not been circulated publicly, and is widely regarded by architects and planners as a failure in design and policy terms.(16) The recent announcement by the NTC of its intention to dispose of its lands in Mumbai has given new relevance to this report, which had been consigned to the dustbin of Bombay’s urban planning history. However, the NTC’s appointment of a consortium of foreign-run property and real estate consultancies to advise on valuation of its assets and division of its lands continues to frustrate those individuals and groups which have campaigned for years for integrated development of the Mill Lands precinct.

Following the promulgation of the new DC rules after 1991, cases referred under the Sick Companies Act of 1985 to the BIFR for tax breaks and financial amnesties for “sick industries” swelled, requesting permission to allow new development in the Mill Lands, under the guise of industrial revival and modernisation. What in fact occurred was further downsizing and closure of what was left of the mills and their workers, and siphoning off of funds and incentives earmarked for investment in the industry. This phenomenon of illegal redevelopment, throwing up sharp contrasts between mill workers losing their jobs and mill managements aggressively promoting gentrification, was the site of protests and mobilisation by the Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti (GKSS). This workers’ rights group, which when formed in 1989 campaigned and litigated for re-opening of closed mills, later agitated for a monitoring committee for the revival and redevelopment of the Mill Lands, and state intervention to support displaced and unemployed mill workers.

The GKSS organised workers, middle-class activists and intellectuals, and prominent cultural and political figures from Girangaon in defence of the working-class character of the area. The GKSS upheld the rights of displaced workers to employment and housing, against the mill-owners, builders and political mafias intent on turning Girangaon into an “elite paradise” and cashing in on its real estate.(17) After prolonged agitation and negotiations with the government, many of their policy recommendations were enshrined in a new policies for monitoring of sales of surplus land and escrow accounts to safeguard workers’ livelihoods, which were announced by the Government of Maharashtra in late 2001.

Amidst these struggles over space, the skyline of mid-town Bombay, dominated for a century by the chimneys of the textile mills, soon sprouted several high-rise skyscrapers, and the Mill Lands began to emerge as a post-industrial and strangely post-modern landscape — with offices of finance companies, management consultancies and multinational banks, advertising agencies and media firms, and art galleries, discotheques, entertainment outlets and restaurants sprouted in the former working-class strongholds in the Mill Lands, signs of an uncertain growth amidst a general landscape of dereliction. One of the most notorious instances of this type of high-income gentrification can be seen in the Phoenix Mills, at Tulsi Pipe Road in Lower Parel.

Mumbai Dock Lands

The Mumbai Dock Lands covers the eastern waterfront of the old Island City of Mumbai, stretching from Colaba in the south to Wadala and Chembur in the north, and forms one flank of a larger arc straddling the Harbour of Bombay, with the planned twin city of Navi Mumbai facing the Island City on the mainland opposite. These Dock Lands include the Sassoon Docks in Colaba — devoted to fishing and trawler activities — and the contiguous stretch of operational port areas at Mereweather Dry Docks and Hughes Dry Docks, Alexandra Docks (Indira Docks), Prince’s and Victoria Docks, and Mazagaon Docks. These Lands also encompasse the non-port waterfront areas in Colaba at Apollo Bunder and the Gateway of India, the Naval Dockyard, Mint House and Old Custom House in the heart of the old Fort, Ballard Estate and Ballard Pier business district, and stretches further north at Ferry Wharf (Bhaucha Dhakka), Mazagaon, the Darukhana ship-breaking yard, the bulk cargo storage facilities at Cotton Green, Mazagaon and Sewree, and the oil and gas terminals in the northern area of the Dock Lands, in Wadala and Chembur.(18)

The Bombay Port Trust (BPT), founded in 1873 as a trust managed by business, government and labour, and today managed by the Ministries of Surface Transport and Shipping, is the sole custodian of this vast urban precinct. These estates comprise an eighth of the land of the entire Island City of Bombay, 1800 acres of prime urban real estate endowed with the infrastructure of ports and docks, warehouses, naval and military establishments, ship-breaking industries, scap metal rolling mills and workshops, petroleum and oil industries and other functions related to the port, shipping and other industry. The Dock Lands are situated adjacent to the Mill Lands, and are intersected by both the Harbour Line of the Central Railway and the now defunct Bombay Port Trust Railway, which once served the transport needs of the docks, and lies disused.

In addition to the old port, the space of the Dock Lands is also occupied by many other industries and forms of economic activity. These formal and informal industries once articulated with the other industrial spaces of the city, which like the Dock Lands, lie in near ruins, evacuated of production and empty of workers. There is a belt of closed or nearly idle manufacturing industries in Sewree, including multinational plants belonging to Colgate-Palmolive, Hindustan Lever and Firestone, many of which closed down in the eighties and nineties. Other factories like Brittania Industries at Reay Road continue at their old location. While most of Sewree is an industrial graveyard, it is otherwise occupied by the petroleum industry there and in Wadala and Chembur.

The northern part of the Dock Lands in Sewree and Wadala contain large areas devoted to the storage units, stations and refineries of public sector oil and petroleum companies Indian Oil and Bharat Petroleum, installations inherited from the pre-nationalisation days when these were known as Burmah Shell, the Indo-Burma Oil Company, and Standard Oil. These are further connected to the Pir Pau Jetty at Chembur, where servicing and fuelling of petroleum tankers takes place, and connects to the other activities related to the storage, transport of petroleum and natural gas of the public sector Oil and Natural Gas Company (ONGC) in the Bombay Harbour and at Nhava Island. Spread throughout the estates of the Dock Lands are large godowns, weigh stations, warehouses and storage facilities for commodities and food grains, such as at Wadi Bunder, Elphinstone Estate, Cotton Green, and Frere Basin in Mazagaon.

Vestiges of the textile industry can also be seen in the space of the Dock Lands, most iconically in the grand Cotton Exchange next to Cotton Green Station, the trading floor erected in the twenties by the East India Cotton Association as a monument to the city’s prestigious place in the global cotton trade and textile industry. One of the city’s old textile mills, now closed, is located in the Dock Lands — the Mukesh Mills (Sassoon Mills) on the waterfront at Colaba, adjacent to the Sasoon Docks.

The space of the Dock Lands also contains many informal and ancillary economic activities either tangentially linked, or unrelated to the formal economy of the BPT. These activities include a large truck driving and transport trade related to cargoes coming in and out of the city, a large scrap metal industry connected to the ship-breaking activities at Darukhana, fishing and ferry trade at Ferry Wharf in Mazagaon, and at the Gateway of India and Sasoon Docks in Colaba.

There are many other forms of casual and contract labour, and informal economic activity, in the houshold and slum economies located on the encroached quays of Lakri Bunder, Coal Bunder, Tank Bunder and Hay Bunder near Sewree, such as cleaning and packing, sex work and vending. The workforce of contract and casual labourers occupying the Dock Lands is estimated at around 100,000 people, though, like elsewhere, we have no solid figures or accurate representations of this population and economy.

This vast infrastructural complex in the Dock Lands, connected to the thriving textile industry in the Mill Lands, propelled Bombay’s growth as the commercial and industrial gateway of western India from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, the cosmopolitan world city which became an icon of India’s national modernity. In the past ten to fifteen years, however, the BPT has been confronting a crisis which threatens its survival on the bases of these economic functions in the city and region.

In the 1990s, with the liberalisation of the national economy, such regional and global shifts in technology, investment and economic policy have begun to unravel the old Port of Bombay and the space of the Dock Lands. Similar to the industries in the Mill Lands and the Eastern Suburbs, the BPT has suffered lack of upgradation of and investment its antiquated docking facilities and port infrastructure, which is only semi-containerised and can only service small feeder vessels, not the large mother vessels which can be serviced at JNPT or NSICT. High octroi rates and other tariffs and levies on moving goods through the city has discouraged businesses, and diverted ships to JNPT, NSICT and other ports in Western India. Additionally, years of political interference and mismanagement by the public sector bureaucracy have compounded these phenomena and driven the BPT into a financial crisis which has become acute in the past three years, for which BPT is now seeking loans for restructuring from several financial institutions.

Labour inspectors with the Bombay Dock Labour Board (BDLB) also allege that an irresponsible trade union leadership in the two recognised unions, the Transport and Dock Workers Union led by S.R. Kulkarni, and the BPT Employees Union led by Shanti Patel, has been less interested in improving working conditions, and the quality and productivity of work, than in protecting the wages and employment security of their workers. Reflecting the general contraction of employment through the city and region, the last de-casualisation scheme for dock workers was passed in 1983, after which a ban on employment was imposed by the port management. Employment in the BPT showed an overall decline in the eighties.

While increasing at a rate of 8% from 1980 to 1983, from 1983 to 1990 employment declined by 16% in the Port Trust, and by 15% in the Dock Labour Board — the tripartite scheme of shipping agents, unions, and the port management under which all permanent dock workers were registered and were guaranteed regular work. Parallel to the unionised workforce, the employment of unregistered contract labour on regular shifts increased through the eighties and nineties as employers and shipping agents flouted the employment norms established by the BDLB, and sought greater flexibility. With lack of availability of work for its 8,000 workers registered under various welfare schemes, mounting financial deficits and precipitous decline in revenue since the late eighties, the BDLB was absorbed as a department of the Port Trust in 1994.2 Additionally, through a VRS scheme announced in 1992, and two further schemes in 2001, the entire organised workforce of the BPT has been reduced from about 35,000 to 23,000 since 1992-1993.

The new forms of wage labour on which these subcontracting chains of productions thrive — with insecure employment and unsteady rhythms of production, poor working conditions and low wages — has sharply eroded the bargaining posture and strength of the unionised workforces which had grown up to the sixties and seventies. On the one hand, this phenomenon has divided workers in the same unit between permanent and badli workers, introducing new antagonisms within the organised workforce. On the other hand, these subcontracting chains remove control of the production process from the factory workforce through outsourcing, prompting the closure of departments within a unit, and rendering uncertain the future of the entire unit and its workforce. This was most clearly seen during the Bombay Textile Strike, when managements were able to maintain textile production in the powerloom sweatshops in the urban hinterland at Bhiwandi while the organised sector mill workers went on strike.

Today, this “informal sector” — inadequately conceptualised and vastly under-investigated in the research literature on the urban economy — has eclipsed and enveloped the more privileged and organised working-class of large-scale manufacturing industries. With a large supply of cheap and flexible casual labour, the continuing relevance of an organised workforce and instititionally governed industrial relations, has come under question and attack by planners, policy makers, and businesses. Earlier legal regulations, protections, and state supports to the industrial sector and its workforces, are now represented as obstacles to growth, competitiveness and investments, and there has been a concerted campaign by industry and business to revise the industrial labour laws, as part of the “second generation” of the economic reform process initiated in 1991.(10)

While liberalisation has added impetus to many of the phenomena described above, it has certainly not been the cause or origin of any of these processes in Mumbai, which are clearly rooted in a longer-term historical trajectory that goes back to the early eighties and the changing culture of industrial relations in the wake of the Bombay Textile Strike. The subcontracting chains for outsourced manufacturing production grew in the city and region, undermining the older system of industrial relations and collective bargaining, and allowing managements more freedom to engage in the extensive downsizing and restructuring that has been the sign of post-liberalisation economic landscape in the MMR.(11)

Much of the existing literature on these questions, dominated by the traditions of political economy and sociology, is based on distributional data and “demographic” analysis of populations. The quantitative bias of this form of analysis is often depoliticised and isolated from the social and cultural contexts of its subjects. The result of this isolation is a tendency to obscure larger questions of social form and culture within the instrumental rationalities of technocratic institutions and practices — relying on census figures and statistical surveys, and other forms of data rooted in the bureaucratic and engineering cultures of the state. These “demographic” categories are distant from the lives of the people in which officials, planners, and scholars seek to intervene, and are materialised in the ill-conceived and disastrous initiatives and policies which have characterised the urban planning process in recent years.

With the dissolution of the formal industrial economy and the casualisation of work which has taken place across the Mumbai Metropolitan Region in the past two decades, analysts are less and less able to understand the social forms of wage labour and economic activity that have become the mainstay of the urban economy.

This cognitive impasse is reflected in the literature on contemporary Mumbai. Most accounts of Mumbai’s deindustrialisation — following the bureaucrat’s and demographer’s quantitiative bias — emphasise the size or scale of industrial closures, the retrenchments of organised workforces, the casualisation of the labour process, and the growth of informal sector production. But the “informal economy” is a negative concept, telling us what people are not doing — not working in the bureaucratically regulated or institutionally governed formal economy, not being paid regular wages or not getting regular work, basically not conforming to our expectations of what forms economic activity should take.

Such concepts are impoverished, and don’t tell us much about what these people are actually doing, what productive activities they are engaged in, their modes of organisation, and what social forms they are generating themselves. Most of this literature does not treat the concept of the “informality” dialectically, but simply as a descriptor or quantitative measure of the extent of informalisation, or the size of the informal economy. However, quantitative assessments depends on substantial conditions of regularity and predictability that by definition do not prevail in the “informal” economy.

This cognitive impasse on understanding the shiftiness and ephemerality of informal economic activities is a problem common both to researchers and practitioners. However, given the trends sketched above, our ability to classify practices as “informal” is almost meaningless unless we can also attempt to document the “informal” forms of economic activity and social life through qualitative and ethnographic approaches.

A more democratic, sensitive and participatory planning process thus calls for a new language of intervention, which displaces and democratises the relationship between the planners and the planned, between the observers and the observed, between technocrats and citizens. We need to create new metaphors which conceptualise social and cultural conditions beyond the abstract categories of land-use, formal and informal economy, and statistical and demographic classifications of populations. These new knowledges must be informed by an ethnographic approach, understanding how subjects see themselves, and how people are moving within and reshaping complex economic and social processes through their own everyday activities.

As opposed to a demographic approach, with its quantitative bias and reliance on distributional data, an ethnographic approach works through relational data and qualitative analysis. While demography constructs knowledge of “objective” and “material” conditions of populations, abstracted from their living contexts, ethnography constructs knowledge of “subjective” conditions of people, their social forms and relations. The ethnographer’s concern with the symbolic and the imagined, and the sphere of everyday life, can complement the demographic biases of policy makers, and assist in more creative planning strategies and policy instruments. Such an approach will democratise the planning process through new concepts of economic culture and the urban environment, rooted in the lives of working people, and not in the statistical analyses and bureaucratic fiat.

Trans-Harbour Links

Since the seventies, the containerisation of cargo traffic and increasing mechanisation of ports, and growth in the size of vessels, integrated with the communications and information networks developed by businesses in the nineties, have completely transformed the business of ports and shipping globally. Smaller, private ports on the western coast in Gujarat and Maharashtra, such as Kandla, which employ flexible workforces of contract labour, offer more competitive rates, better facilities, faster and more efficient throughput of cargo than Bombay, and are thus more attractive destinations for regional shipping traffic and trade.

In the mid-eighties, in an effort to position Bombay more favourably in this rapidly changing business climate, the BPT and Central Government jointly financed the construction of a new modern and containerised facility, the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT), located on the mainland side of the Bombay Harbour in Nhava Sheva, near Panvel in Navi Mumbai. Mired in bureaucratic delays, JNPT was still-born by the time it became fully functional in 1989, and could not compete favourably with other ports in the region. Lack of policy coordination between the old and new ports in Mumbai resulted in a vicious downward spiral of competitition between the BPT and the JNPT, which undermined both ports, rather than promoting the growth of both ports in tandem, and compounding the structural crisis of the BPT, because of diversion of traffic.

In 1998, the Central Government invited tenders for foreign companies to invest in port and shipping infrastructure, and the JNPT leased several of its berths to what has now become the Nhava Sheva International Container Terminal (NSICT), which is 95% owned and managed by the multinational shipping firm Peninsular and Oriental (P&O). In the less than two years that the NSICT has been open in Mumbai, its management claims to have diverted more than 70% of container traffic previously bound for the BPT or JNPT.

NSICT, operating as a node in a global network of shipping and container traffic dominated by P&O and similar global shipping lines, has more than twice the throughput time for cargo than JNPT or any of its rivals in India or the region, has a deeper draught for berthing the largest of container vessels which the BPT cannot accommodate in its shallow draught basins, is completely computerised in its operations, and has a total workforce of less than 700 people, inclusive of staff and workers. P&O has established a similar container facility in Madras, and is bidding for further sites at Cochin and in Sri Lanka, confident of expanding its container operations despite the global economic downturn.

Within the MMR, planners in CIDCO and the State Government are positioning the JNPT-NSICT Port as part of planned investment zone which comprises the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, a proposed second international airport at Panvel, and the export-oriented Special Economic Zone (SEZ) to be located at Dronagiri — one corner of the State’s planned economic Golden Triangle of Nashik, Pune and Panvel.

Panvel is one of the central nodes of Navi Mumbai, the “twin city” of Mumbai, planned, built and administered by the City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO) since 1970. In recent years, Panvel has emerged as the pivot of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, as one of its fastest-growing areas. Straddling the newly constructed Mumbai-Pune Expressway, Panvel is touted by the Maharashtra Government as one corner of the “Golden Triangle” — a metropolitan corridor whose other corners are Pune and Nashik — where the state hopes to channel new investment into world-class infrastructure and industry. Panvel has been proposed as the site of a new international airport for Navi Mumbai.

The Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) in neighbouring Nhava Sheva has recently partially privatised its facilities to the transnational shipping company P&O, creating a new port and container terminal whose operational efficiency compares with Los Angeles, Singapore or Rotterdam. Most significantly, to the south of Panvel in Dronagiri, CIDCO has begun construction of India’s first SEZ (Special Economic Zone), a Chinese-style offshore investment, finance and export processing facility. Indeed one could compare the Panvel region to similar complexes in China — such as the Pearl River Delta Region between Hong Kong, the Shenzhen SEZ, and Guangzhou, or the Shanghai, Pudong SEZ, and Nanjing area — China’s two most heavily industrialised and globalised economic regions.


Panvel’s emergence as one of the fastest growing regions in the MMR, propelling it from urban periphery to metropolitan centre, is not simply a story of new transport, communications and infrastructural networks. The city is located between the Thane-Belapur Road and Taloja, a thriving manufacturing complex containing most of Bombay’s capital-intensive industries under multinational and Indian managements, including engineering, electronics, machine parts, chemical and petrochemical industries. These industries, which had located in New Bombay in the seventies and eighties through the incentives and protection offered by CIDCO and MIDC (Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation), are today largely idle, closed, or operating at minimum capacity, as the initial phases of liberalisation in the nineties dealt them a death blow after a decade of industrial sickness and retrenchments.

Activists have noted that the workers in these industries — many of whom come from agricultural communities rendered landless by CIDCO’s forcible land acquisitions for industrial development in the sixties and seventies — have themselves now been rendered jobless by widespread factory closures. This landless, jobless proletariat have been left without options either by the state, or by private companies and developers who are now moving into Navi Mumbai, to cash in on the new economic opportunities on offer in this newly connected hub of global accumulation. Most notable of the new players in the region is Reliance Infocomm, whose sprawling “Knowledge City” campus has recently opened in Ghansoli. Reliance has centralised its operations in this new node, and with the acquisition by Reliance Industries of the sprawling National Organic Chemical Industries Ltd (NOCIL) complex from the Mafatlals, is positioned for expansion.


Throughout the world, old industrial and port cities are being transformed by global shifts in technology and capital. The waterfronts of these cities were once the site for bustling trade and shipping connected to thriving manufacturing industries, supplied by labour from large inner-city working class communities. With the global shift from manufacturing to information and services, and the related shift from industrial to information and communication technologies, the space of cities has been correspondingly transformed.

Similar to other industrial cities globally, through the eighties and nineties the Mumbai Metropolitan Region has experienced a prolonged restructuring of its economy, which has reinscribed the geography of this vast urban region in relation to the global economy. From the early eighties, manufacturing production was steadily dispersed from formal factory and work units through outsourcing and subcontracting, leading to the growth of decentralised chains of production located in the suburbs and hinterland, as well as in small workshops, slums, and households scattered throughout the city and region.

The inconclusive end of the Bombay Textile Strike in 1981 and 1982 was attended by a prolonged wave of lockouts, retrenchments, and eventual closures of factories and manufacturing units in the eighties and nineties, eroding the collective bargaining powers of organised workforces and their trade unions, vis-à-vis managements intent on restructuring, shedding their workforces and flexibilising production processes. The result of this restructuring has been the generalisation of casual and contract work as the dominant form of wage labour in the manufacturing economy in post-liberalisation Mumbai.

Parallel to this process of deindustrialization in the eighties and nineties was the shift in the base of the urban economy, from manufacturing, to finance, services, and trade as the dominant sectors of production. As manufacturing is spatially dispersed and decentralised, a new concentration of economic functions is taking place, centered on these service industries and strategies of accumulation. In the context of the liberalisation of the nineties, Mumbai seems to be emerging as a central site for the concentration of producer services, finance, and information industries — the backbone of any global city.

The effects of this industrial restructuring on urban space in Mumbai has been deleterious. The decline and closure of factories and manufacturing units has resulted in dereliction in former industrial areas, the large-scale displacement of working class and labouring communities once employed in manufactures of textiles, engineering, pharmaceutical and petrochemical industries. Where redevelopment has taken place — such as in the textile mill districts of central Mumbai — it has relied on speculative and piecemeal initiatives of private investors and property developers, promoted a pattern of high-income gentrification, leading to polarisation with older residential and working communities Opportunities for planned redevelopment and overall urban regeneration have been missed, for lack of imagination and of political will.


(1) Preliminary research expeditions in the Bombay Port Trust, and across the harbour at Nhava Sheva, were facilitated by George Gomez, senior trade unionist, Saro Fernando, Senior Inspector of the Bombay Dock Labour Board, and by Pratibha Gaonkar, ACC Cement, and K.K. Krishnadas, Operations Manager of the Nhava Sheva International Container Terminal. The author also wishes to thank Pankaj Joshi, architect, and Anirudh Paul, Head of the Design Cell at the Kamala Raheja Vidhyanidhi Institute for Architecture, who have shared with him their research experience while working on a study on the Eastern Harbour of Bombay from July to August 2001, sponsored by the Urban Design Research Institute.
(1) See Ernesto Noronha, “Bombay Dock Labour Board 1948–1994: From Insecurity to Security to Insecurity?” in Economic and Political Weekly (Review of Labour Studies), 29 December 2001, pp.4851–4858.
(2) See Darryl D’Monte and Priyanka Kakodkar, “Bombay: The Death of Great City”, Cover Story, Outlook, Volume XLII, No.4, 4 February 2002.
(3) For instance, see the lecture by V. Ranganathan, Chief Secretary to the Government of Maharashtra, on “Prospects for Development of Mumbai as a Leading Services Centre”, delivered to the Maharashtra Economic Development Council, 5 February 2002,
(4) Saskia Sassen, The Global City, pp.3-4
(5) Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), Draft Regional Plan for Bombay Metropolitan Region, 1996–2011. Mumbai: MMRDA and Government of Maharashtra, 1995.
(6) Parts of this section are based on interviews and research I carried out from August to December 2000 in manufacturing industries in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, facilitated by the Trade Union Solidarity Committee, an umbrella grouping of non-party and independent employee’s unions in the MMR. The unions which responded to the questionnaire I circulated, all located in the Eastern Suburbs, were: Ramon-Demm Employees Union, Thane; Franco-Indian Workers Union, Byculla; Bio-Chem Pharma Industries Employees Union, Vikhroli; CIPLA Employees Union, Vikhroli; Gabriel Employees Union, Mulund; Siemens Workers Union, Kalwa, Thane District; Voltas Employees Union, Thane; Nicholas Employees Union, Deonar; Hindustan Lever Employees Union, Sewree; Mukund Kamgar Union, Kurla; Otis Elevator Employees Union; and Modistone Employees Union, Sewree. This research stint was supported by Mihir Desai, of the India Centre for Human Right and Law, Mumbai.
(7) Arvind Shrouti and Arun Daur, Industrial Sickness and its Impact on Workers, with Reference to the Mumbai-Thane Region. New Delhi: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and Maniben Kara Institute, 1995.
(8) See Jairus Banaji and Rohini Hensman, “A Short History of the Employees Unions in Bombay, 1947–1991”, paper presented at the conference on “Work and Workers in Mumbai”, organised by Vikas Adhyayan Kendra and Max Mueller Bhavan, Bombay, November 1997.
(9) Arvind Shrouti and Nandkumar, New Economic Policy, Changing Management Strategies — Impact on Workers and Trade Unions. New Delhi: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and Maniben Kara Institute, 1994.
(10) Rohini Hensman, “The Impact of Globalisation on Employment in India and Responses from the Formal and Informal Sectors”, Amsterdam: IIAS/IISG CLARA Working Paper, no.15, 2001.
(11) See Jairus Banaji, “Workers’ Rights in a New Economic Order: The First Arvind Das Memorial Lecture” and other essays and documents in Shekhar Krishnan, ed., Workers Rights and Labour Law: A Backgrounder for the Workshop on Labour to be held at the National Conference on Human Rights, Social Movements, Globalisation and the Law at Panchgani, Maharashtra. Mumbai: India Centre for Human Rights and Law, December 2000.
(12) During a period of participatory research and fieldwork in Mumbai from October 1999 to June 2000, I worked with the Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti (Mill Workers Struggle Committee), Girangaon Bachao Andolan (Movement to Save the Village of Mills). During this time, I wrote and published Murder of the Mills: A Case Study of Phoenix Mills (Mumbai: Lokshahi Hakk Sanghatana and Girangaon Bachao Andolan, April 2000), as well as several articles and short essays on the situation of textile mill closures in the Indian Express Newsline, Mumbai, From the Lawyer’s Collective, Mumbai, People’s Reporter, Mumbai. During his fieldwork, I also provided editorial assistance to an oral history project by the leaders of the Girangaon Bachao Andolan, Meena Menon and Neera Adarkar, Voices Over a Hundred Years: Glimpses from the History of Mumbai’s Mill Districts (Calcutta: Seagull, forthcoming).
(13) See Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, The Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India: Business Strategies and the Working Class in Bombay, 1900–1940. Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 1994 and Meena Menon and Neera Adarkar, Voices Through a Hundred Years: Glimpses from the History of Mumbai’s Textile Mill Districts. Calcutta: Seagull, forthcoming.
(14) Shuji Uchikawa, Indian Textile Industry: State Policy, Liberalization and Growth, Delhi: Manohar, 1998, pp.96–97, 104, and 161–162. See also Omkar Goswami, “Sickness and Growth of India’s Textile Industry: Analysis and Policy Options” in Economic and Political Weekly, 3–10 November 1990, pp.2429–2439 and pp.2496–2505.
(15) See also the “Draft Proposal for Integrated Redevelopment of Textile Mill Lands”, jointly authored by architects Neera and Arvind Adarkar and P.K. Das, presented to the Minister of Labour, Government of Maharashtra in 1999 and “Objections to the MMRDA’s Draft Regional Plan 1996–2011 by the Girangaon Bachao Andolan”, paper circulated by the Mumbai Nagarik Vikas Manch (?).
(16) See Darryl D’Monte, “Redevelopment of Mumbai’s Cotton Textile Mill Lands: Opportunity Lost”, paper presented at the conference on “Work and Workers in Mumbai”, organised by Vikas Adhyayan Kendra and Max Mueller Bhavan, Bombay, November 1997.
(17) See Arvind Adarkar, “Fighting a Losing Battle?: Planning Policies of Mumbai in the Wake of Globalisation” in Hemlata Dandekar, ed., City, Space and Globalization: An International Perspective. Ann Arbor: College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Michigan, 1998, pp.151–161, and Adarkar, Whose City is it Anyway?: History of Mumbai’s Development Policy. Unpublished anthology

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