The Mills That Made Bombay

Girangaon and its mill workers,both men and women,shaped the metropolis of Bombay till the shutdown of the 1980s. That history ought not to be forgotten by Meena R Menon and Neera Adarkar

New Delhi | Published: September 8, 2013 11:11:42 pm

Girangaon and its mill workers,both men and women,shaped the metropolis of Bombay till the shutdown of the 1980s. That history ought not to be forgotten by Meena R Menon and Neera Adarkar

Girangaon or the village of mills was at the centre of Bombay’s evolution into a modern metropolis. The textile industry was one of the first modern industries in India and mill workers among the pioneers of trade unions in the country. It was a stronghold of the Communist Party and an important part of the history of Indian independence. It was also here that the right-wing Marathi party called the Shiv Sena took shape and later grew to occupy centrestage in Maharashtra. The Bombay mafia was born here. So the history of Girangaon is,in a sense,intertwined with the history of modern India.

Our book One Hundred Years One Hundred Voices,published by Seagull in 2004,dwells on this point. Today,nearly a decade since we worked on the book,there is a fear that the people of Mumbai are forgetting the city’s history that is so inextricably linked to mill culture. Girangaon stretches over a thousand acres — from Byculla to Dadar and from Mahalaxmi to Elphinstone Road. Its evolution started in the mid-19th century with the first textile mill being set up in 1851. The industry grew substantially in the 1870s and 1880s,all through till the first half of the 20th century,leading to a massive concentration of mills and ancillary workshops,workers and job-seekers in Girangaon. When the general strike called by Datta Samant came into force in 1982 and continued for two years,nearly 2.5 lakh workers were affected. If one calculates the impact on their dependants and those belonging to other ancillary industries,the number would touch 10 lakh.

Mill workers were the first migrants to the city,braving the arduous journey from their native villages to work in adverse conditions. They put down roots,evolved social institutions and associations,fought great political battles,entertained and educated the city with their plays,music and verse. They influenced its economy,politics,culture and space in innumerable ways. They came from all over the country and made the city cosmopolitan. They gave the city its famous tagline: “A city that never sleeps”. They worked late into the night and then poured out on to the streets for some revelry. They also created the impression that it is “safe for women”.

Bombay was predominantly a city of male migrants. The famines of the 1870s and the expansion of the cottage industry in the 1880s were accompanied by a dramatic increase in the number of women workers. In 1881,there were 31,351 women workers employed by 32 mills. Women constituted about 20-25 per cent of the total textile workforce until 1931,when with the introduction of the night shift (forbidden to women workers) and maternity benefits (which employers saw as an added cost),the number declined. In spite of that,women continued to work in mills. They were paid much less than men. Yet,the fact that they were working outside home and earning their living gave them a sense of independence. In the years to come,they became active in the public,social and political spheres. They were active in the freedom struggle,the movement for the state of Maharashtra and the Datta Samant-led union strikes. The Communist Party did its bit to bring about gender equality and organise women. Though there were cases of harassment,most of them could still take a local train in Thane after midnight.

Girangaon remained the stage for many political movements,from the Independence struggle to the Samyukta Maharashtra movement. The sheer size of the community,integrated and well-organised through multi-layered institutions,made it inevitable that it was a politically alive space. The art and culture of Girangaon could not but be affected by this factor. These social and political currents,besides religion and ritual,played an important part in the evolution of art and culture in Maharashtra.

In 1982,the general strike heralded the irreversible decline of the textile industry. Many factors were responsible for this — both national and international. The industry was largely indigenous and labour-intensive,and wilted under globalisation.

Nearly three decades since the strike,the history of Girangaon is in danger of being rewritten or forgotten. There are so many layers to its history — industrial,political,cultural and women’s emancipation. To be aware of our history is crucial as Mumbai aspires to be a world-class city. Without it,it does not have a clear idea about where it’s headed. It has no plan. Today,the builders are deciding the development of the city.

Years ago,when the mills were running in full swing,Chinchpokli Junction would transform into a ground for night-long jatras. Vendors would roll out a spread of eatables,giant ferris wheels would spin,and traditional entertainers would do their bit. The mill workers,after wrapping up their night shift,would spill on to the junction. After much revelry,they would fall asleep on the pavements.

Girangaon with the prime land of the mills — a total of 600 acres — now sees a proliferation of luxury apartments,malls and commercial spaces. There is no regulation as far as land usage is concerned. Jobs are not created either. The city can’t grow if we don’t create jobs. The jobs that are being created are mostly for the middle class. This is no longer a working-class city. There is a growing sense of alienation among working-class youths who have failed to land a job.

Being a melting pot of different cultures,brought together by the mills,the city acquired a vibrant community life. During Ganapati festivals,along with performances of Tamasha and Dashavatar from Konkan and Ghat regions of Maharashtra,there would be shows of Yakshagana from Karnakata and puppetry from Andhra Pradesh.

That cultural exchange is almost over, and is tough to revive as the remaining mill workers are dispersed now. A community life can be fostered even while developing slums but in most cases,housing for mill workers is created on a strip of land,where a tall building with small tenements leaves little space for community activities. In contrast,a much bigger chunk of land is kept for houses to be built and sold at higher prices.

In our book,we chose to include the voices of 100 mill workers,following the oral tradition of India. They are very conscious of their history and tradition unlike other Mumbaikars. That’s why they were part of the forward movement of the city. Once they were sidelined,there was no one to take their place. Not even the Kolis,considered to be the original inhabitants of the island city,because they were dispossessed of their land centuries ago. Once the mill workers were dispossessed,there remained few people who had a sense of the city. They are poor and neglected. But they are the ones who fought for the city,and are still defending their claim on it by demanding their rightful share of mandatory public housing on mill land. If they and their culture are lost,then the soul of the city will be gone forever.

Meena R Menon,a political and trade union activist,heads Citizen Rights Collective. Neera Adarkar,an architect and urban researcher,is associated with the Save Girangaon Movement

As told to Alaka Sahani

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