Home / Industry / Untangling the knot between Mumbai and its mills

Mumbai: Vitthal Sontakke was a boy of 13 when some 250,000 textile workers in Mumbai put down their tools in support of a strike called by militant trade unionist Datta Samant 30 years ago.

His father was a substitute worker at the Bombay Dyeing mill when the strike began to press for better pay and regular work for temps. It proved to be the biggest industrial dispute in Indian history and eventually led to the demise of the Mumbai textile industry.

The textile industry was the largest source of employment in Mumbai, and its fall reshaped many destinies in the mill district of south-central Mumbai, also known as Girangaon (village of the mills). The breadwinners of some 100,000 families were left without jobs in a city whose fortunes had, for 150 years, been intertwined with those of its textile mills.

The untangling of the knot between Mumbai and the mills over the past three decades—as the mills gave way to malls and residential towers—marks one of the most dramatic—and for families of mill works, the most disruptive—urban transformations India has ever seen.

Among the survivors, the story of Sontakke, who is today 43 and teaches economics at Kirti College in Mumbai, is one of the more unusual ones.

By 1985, Sontakke was in Class IX and his father was jobless. Like many from Girangaon, Sontakke did not imagine a life beyond the textile mills in those days. The school topper gave tuitions to younger students and earned enough to pay for his family’s food and to fund a diploma in textile engineering.

Sontakke landed an engineer’s job in 1989 even as several mills started closing and others fired workers. The comfort of that job proved to be short-lived. The Mafatlal Industries Ltd mill he worked in closed in mid-2000 and Sontakke returned to giving tuitions to survive. Through sheer grit, he also completed a Master’s degree in economics through correspondence, earning the qualification required for his present job as a teacher.

Sontakke’s career path may be atypical among families of the Mumbai mill workers, but the struggle for survival isn’t. Unlike Sontakke, however, most mill workers were unskilled and often joined the mills without completing their schooling. When the economy boomed and new job opportunities arose, mill workers found it difficult to acquire new skills and move into better-paying jobs.

The failure of the 1982 strike also marked a turning point in India’s labour market, as it signalled the collapse of union power, and altered the relationship among business, politics and labour, according to scholars.

In Mumbai, the downfall of the mills inverted the city’s employment pattern. India has always had a large share of the so-called unorganized sector, but until the 1970s, Mumbai was different; in the city, the organized sector had always been the predominant employer. That changed as the textile industry withered, said the 2009 Mumbai Human Development Report published by the city’s municipal corporation.

The cotton mill industry in India was established by urban traders in Mumbai and Ahmedabad who had access to cheap electricity, possessed their own funds, and had pioneered a unique system of labour contractors to ensure a steady flow of workers from rural areas.

The textile mill industry reaped economies of scale by integrating processes such as weaving and spinning, and rose to become one of the world’s largest by the turn of the 19th century.

Its decline started in the 1960s, owing to several factors: restrictions on mills by India’s independent government to protect handlooms, the proliferation of power looms that were more nimble-footed in responding to changing demands, and inept management.

Wage pressures added to its woes, while rising real estate prices offered a more lucrative alternative to owners. The 18-month strike was the final nail in the coffin.

Three decades on, memories are still fresh as mill workers and their descendants recount how they survived and coped.

Kiran Kaviskar, now 34, the son of a Kohinoor Mills worker, wanted to study management, but stopped studies after Class XII to support the family. Contract workers such as Kaviskar, who works as an office attendant, often face working conditions similar to unorganized workers even though they work in the organized sector.

With social protection guaranteed by law and denied in practice, they can at best be described as “quasi-organized", said K.R. Shyam Sunder, a labour economist and associate professor at Mumbai-based Guru Nanak College.

The withering of the mills altered the very nature of Girangaon: its economy, culture and politics. Livelihood insecurity in the late 1980s and 1990s bred crime, even as the right-wing Shiv Sena party’s base grew among the mostly Maharashtrian youth.

The Sena’s rhetoric of jobs for locals struck a chord with a generation that saw the class struggle failing. Many former mill workers, whose parents were communists, journeyed right to become Shiv Sainiks.

Mill workers who were near the end of their careers when they were asked to take a golden handshake suffered the least. Mid-career workers were hit hard, and in many families, children dropped out of school.

A 2002 survey of 100 families of mill workers by Sharit Bhowmik, a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, found a significant decline in incomes and an increase in school dropouts.

The educated lot among the mill families has gained from India’s rapid growth in recent years, although the climb has been hard.

Arjun Mandavkar, 26, a computer engineer and the grandson of a mill worker at Kohinoor Mills, worked part-time to fund his studies.

“Some of us are in well-paying jobs today, but we never had it easy," said Mandavkar. “My mother worked as a maid and I worked as a vendor, selling almost everything, from newspapers to milk."

Stories such as those of Sontakke and Mandavkar reflect the social transformation brought about by India’s growth. Still, such examples are in the minority among those affected by the strike.

A significant chunk of mill workers and their descendants left Mumbai. Among those who have stayed back, the majority find themselves today in the unorganized sector or as contract workers. They seem to have borne the brunt of the collateral damage arising from the changes in Mumbai’s economy.

Roughly nine out of 10 workers in India belong to the unorganized sector and work without any social protection, according to official estimates. Although reliable economy-wide estimates for contract workers are unavailable, Annual Survey of Industries (ASI) data indicates that one-third of industrial workers are contractual. Independent surveys across several states have found contract workers to be in the majority, suggesting that the ASI figure could be an underestimate.

They are likely to be the first to be hit if the economy’s current slowdown turns out to be structural in nature—one that would require deep job cuts and restructuring.

“We don’t know today whether we will have our jobs tomorrow," said Kailash Kudale, who worked at Century Mills for roughly a decade until it shut down in 2006.

In his mid-40s, Kudale has been working as a security guard for the past five years. Kudale said his monthly income of 6,000 is the same as it was six years ago; he has meanwhile lost out on other benefits such as paid leave, education loans and dearness allowance that come with a regular job in his transition from the organized to the quasi-organized sector.

The spurt in informal employment— not just in Mumbai, but across India— has been sparked by policy changes in the 1980s intimately connected to the failed textile strike. Till the early 1980s, India’s labour regime used stringent labour laws to humour unions and to protect their interests.

The falling earnings of unionized sunset sectors such as textiles accompanied by growing labour militancy brought an end to this era.

The 1982 mill strike marked the turning point, as for the first time, the state stayed away from a major industrial dispute, said a 2006 research paper co-authored by India’s chief statistician T.C.A. Anant, historian P. Mohapatra, and economists R. Hasan, R. Nagraj and S.K. Sasikumar.

A wish to dent the growing political clout of Samant in Mumbai might have caused the governments in Maharashtra and at the centre, led by Samant’s adversary, the Congress party, to distance themselves from the textile strike, but there were broader changes under way.

Starting from the 1980s, the state reduced monitoring of labour practices, allowing de facto liberalization of labour laws even as de jure rigidities remained. Unions lost clout across industries.These changes were a part of Indira Gandhi’s grand design in the 1980s to raise growth by adopting a pro-business and anti-labour stance in practice even as she maintained her pro-poor rhetoric in public, wrote Princeton University political scientist Atul Kohli in his recent book, Poverty Amid Plenty in the New India.

The absence of transparent labour market reforms fed the growth of the informal economy, with a fourfold rise in the share of contract workers since the 1980s, according to ASI data.

Contract workers include skilled workers, who usually receive minimum statutory dues, as well as unskilled ones such as peons and housekeeping staff, who are employed through so-called placement agencies. Numerous such agencies that dot India’s urban landscape have bred exploitation. Denial of provident fund by such agencies is the most favoured tactic, a 2009 survey by the Bangalore-based Institute for Social and Economic Change found.

“Earlier (at Century Mills) we could take loans from the provident fund account; now we don’t know if we will be paid provident fund at all," said Kudale. “I don’t know how I will fund my children’s education."

The decline of unions and a more-liberal labour regime also led Mumbai’s mills to violate norms. In several instances, supervisors connived with owners to fire workers without compensation, said Suchita Krishnaprasad, who heads the economics department at Elphinstone College and wrote her doctoral thesis on the changes in textile mills in the post-strike period.

Mills in Mumbai had become unsustainable, but the transition could have been fairer, if mill workers had been paid compensation on time and rehabilitated, said Sontakke.

While much has changed in Sontakke’s life, the one constant has been the 150 sq. ft tenement where he was born and where he still lives with his wife and two children.

“Maybe I am among the lucky ones as I managed to find a secure job finally," said Sontakke. “But I wish someone had advised me to stay away from the textile industry and study economics early on; I could have been far ahead in my academic career today."

The lost years won’t return, but Sontakke hasn’t lost heart. He has enrolled himself for a PhD in economics.

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