Mills as Public Spaces: Mumbai’s Industrial Heritage

This essay on  industrial heritage conservation was written when the first public interest litigation challenging the sale of mill lands in Central Mumbai was in the Bombay High Court in 2005, and published in Art India Magazine, ‘Heritage Issues’, Vol. X, Issue 2 (Mumbai), April 2005.

In Mumbai, public awareness of urban arts and heritage has experienced a significant revival in the past ten years in the same historical moment when manufacturing industries have closed and factories emptied throughout Greater Mumbai. Heritage discourse and conservation practice have only implicitly acknowledged this economic context. Since the Bombay Textile Strike of 1982-3, entire working-class communities across the city have been retrenched and dispersed in the Mill and Dock Lands of central Mumbai, the chemical and engineering factories and industrial estates in suburban Mumbai, and across the Metropolitan Region.

With job losses going into tens of lakhs, and uncertain growth prospects for Mumbai, several years ago the media and civic elite began speaking of the “death of the city” they once knew, whereas planners and academics eagerly awaited the birth of a new “global city”. However one described this restructuring of the city’s economy, it is clear that manufacturing has declined in value compared to the new service industries, not just in Mumbai but in big cities throughout the world. The post-industrial landscapes of London’s Docklands and New York’s Lower Manhattan are oft-cited symbols of this change monstrous, gleaming high-rise districts dominated by banking, finance, and white-collar services. In today’s urban economy, the making and marketing of immaterial signs has replaced the production of durable goods as the primary circuit of wealth creation.

The concepts and practices of cultural heritage, architectural conservation, and public arts, (whether they realise it or not) are enmeshed in this new economy of image production. While buildings are still very much made of brick and mortar (or steel and RCC), the production of images of the urban built environment is one of the intangible, high-value commodities of the global city. Whether in the space-age absurdity of Hafeez Contractor’s garden city in Powai, or the sepia-tinted romanticism of the South Bombay heritage enthusiasts, the value of a building has less to do with its physical qualities than its iconic presence as an object of consumption. So it is not difficult to explain the phenomenal growth of concepts and practices of heritage conservation in Mumbai.

The scarcity of fresh land and exhaustion of new sites to build in Mumbai has forced many architects to refashion their practice around conservation of existing buildings, rather than construction of new ones. Today the city skyline is commanded by towering skyscrapers, not by smoking chimneys. The closure of factories in the eighties and nineties was paralleled by the rise of the construction industry, and allied sectors in finance, banking, real estate and retail. Builders, and not mill-owners or industrialists, are the kingpins of today’s global city and architecture, arts, and cultural practice must reflect this new order. Heritage is, quite plainly, a smart way of boosting real estate values for high-end consumption, and of turning downmarket areas into upmarket ones.

Cultural practices such as the arts and architecture should seek to illuminate social and historical change, rather than mystify it, providing an imagery and language for us to discuss and reflect on our fast-changing society. But as heritage has increased in public consciousness and visibility through legislation and protection of listed buildings, the organisation of new city arts festivals, and an outpouring of romantic cultural representations from coffee table books to films and other media workers and manufacturing have been obscured from public view and memory. Until now, urban heritage has been almost exclusively about the colonial city — protecting its built fabric and rendering visible its monumental signs — reinvigorating civic pride through historical nostalgia. Heritage has primarily been addressed to the colonial city, and not about the industrial city.

We now need to chart a shift in the focus of urban conservationists, arts and heritage enthusiasts, and the public, from the monuments and signs of the colonial period to illuminating this hidden Other of the picture postcards and coffee-table representations — the people, machines and places that produced the twentieth-century industrial metropolis of Mumbai. The task of historically informed conservation practice is in rendering visible the history of the industrial city which has been extinguished by factory closures and the flight of manufacturing, as well as the new global city which is developing around economies of services, information and culture.

Over the past ten years, different groups of architects, historians, activists and media practitioners have been documenting the city’s post-industrial landscapes in the Mill Lands of Central Mumbai. Public debates on the Mill Lands have for many years been polarised between the trade unions and workers’ groups raising issues of livelihood and workers’ rights to employment and housing on the one hand — and architects, urban designers and civic activists raising issues of public space and city planning policy on the other hand. Recently these groups have aligned themselves to pursue a public interest litigation on land use in the Mill Lands, in which the primary objective is to create more public spaces in the more than 600 acres of derelict and idle land in the inner-city textile mill compounds.

But the mills and other industrial spaces have never been “public spaces” in the sense that any citizen could enter them — they were entirely closed to anyone but workers or staff, both while they were operational and even after the strikes and closures. It is difficult to imagine the post-industrial landscapes of Mumbai except as crumbling factories and idle chimneys, because most people have never been inside of the mills, and the working-class communities that sustained them have lost their jobs and housing. When Girangaon (the village of the mills, as it was locally known) was still the throbbing heart of the city’s economy, each textile mill was a miniature city of several thousand people working in three to four shifts, day and night.

A complex network of chawls, markets, maidans, and social institutions spread out from the mill gates, integrating the neighbourhood outside with the factory inside. Mid-century Marathi literature, poetry, and oral traditions contains rich reflections on the life of the mills and chawls, but there is today little public imagery and imagination of these spaces. The social fabric of Girangaon has collapsed, and the physical artefacts and lands of the industrial city are being dismantled as we speak.

It is almost impossible to visualise what is at stake for the city in the conversion of the mills from factories producing yarns and cloth to campuses producing information and services — one form of private accumulation giving way to another. Making these mills into public spaces and giving them back to the city is more than just a abstract dilemma of land-use or planning policy. Creating new public spaces from the city’s industrial heritage means also creating a public imagination for the city which recovers the active presence of work and technology in our everyday lives, and challenges the commonly-accepted vision of manufacturing inevitably giving way to services. We need to seek out new cultural forms by which to narrate these histories, and invite the urban public to tell its own stories of work, aspiration and movement that produced the Mumbai we know today.

Originally published as Mills as Public Spaces: Mumbai’s Industrial Heritagein Art India, April 2005