IT FELT like a furnace inside the tin-shed powerloom unit in one of Malegaon’s bylanes, but Mohammed Yunus, 63, was happy and reassured on Monday. He was at work after almost two months of lockdown imposed by the government to stop the spread of the Covid pandemic.
“My family and I managed to survive the lockdown because my employer paid Rs 700 a week, and social organisations helped us with ration. But I realised this would not last long. I had to get back to work,” said Yunus, speaking loudly to be heard amidst the clattering of looms.
The Maharashtra government had allowed powerloom units outside containment zones to resume operations on May 21. With lakhs of migrant workers returning to their homes and supply chains yet to fully restored, powerlooms – that too only a few – restarted only a week later.
On a normal day, six others would join Yunus to handle the 36 power looms in the unit he works. But on Monday, only two gave him company. In Malegaon, most of those employed in powerlooms, estimated to be over a lakh, are domiciles or residents of the city, and probably this will help resumption of full operations earlier.
Bhiwandi is not so. Nearly 80 per cent of the over four lakh workers here are migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha. With a largescale exodus, only a few are left to restart work in the looms.
In both Malegaon and Bhiwandi, workers spin yarn into a rough cloth called “grey” in trade parlance. This is then transported outside the state for further processing to produce ready-to-sell finished good.
The two cities account for almost 90 per cent of the state’s and 40 per cent of the country’s powerlooms. Bhiwandi alone has 7.5 lakh looms, and Malegaon 2.5 lakh units. Together, they provide jobs to over five lakh workers.
Nearly 61 per cent of all cloth in India is produced by the decentralised powerloom sector, with Maharashtra contributing the most. Of the 22 lakhs power looms in the country, nearly half are in Maharashtra.
While allowing powerlooms to resume operations, the Maharashtra government had advocated workplace safeguards to reduce exposure to coronavirus. But in the few looms that have reopened, practically no precautions are being followed.
In Yunus’s small unit, there were no disinfectants and sanitisers. Yunus and his two co-workers were not wearing a mask when The Indian Express visited the unit.
When asked, Mohammed Zahid, who works along with Yunus, said, “In this heat, wearing a mask is cumbersome. Moreover, there are not many people who wear masks every day.”
It is not that workers are not scared of the virus. Abdul Razzaque, 51, who has worked in a powerloom for 35 years in Malegaon, worries a lot. Sitting outside a local mosque – where he spends much of his time these days – Razzaque says not getting back to work is not an option.
“My self-respect does not allow me to live on doles anymore… I will resume work the moment an opportunity comes,” he says.
Advocate Yaseen Momin, a powerloom owner in Bhiwandi, says less than 10 per cent of the units have resumed operations in the town. “These units won’t be able to continue operations for more a month if markets in Mumbai and other parts do not open. Another problem is labour shortage. Bhiwandi has seen a massive exodus and only 25 per cent of the labour force has stayed back. Until workers return, normalcy is unlikely to be restored in this sector,” Momin says.
In an integrated sector like textiles, allowing power looms to operate is meaningless if markets for raw materials and finished goods are not opened. “If markets where we procure raw materials and sell our wares remain closed, how does allowing power looms to operate make sense. I am sure that without further relaxations even those looms that have started functioning will shut down in a month,” Momin said.
While powerloom owners have all along been reluctant to modernise, the pandemic and the resultant lockdown has, ironically hit those who modernised the hardest. With massive overheads including loans to replay and the dependence on skilled workforce, they have neither workers, nor are left with resources post lockdown.
“Local labourers are not skilled enough to handle the modernized looms. These were largely run by migrant workers. However, due to the pandemic nearly 100 have left. We are now operating with just 30 workers, and way below our capacity. These are very difficult times for powerloom owners,” said Zahid Faizee who recently set up a state-of-the-art air powerloom unit in Malegaon.
The local administration is seized of the problems faced by the industry. Malegaon Municipal Corporation Commissioner Trimbak Kasar said while not many powerlooms had opened up in the city, the sector had to look at newer markets to expand.
“There is a major spike in demand for masks and gloves in the world. Malegaon has the technical wherewithal as well as the labour force to take advantage of this demand. We are thinking if we can use our looms to set up a system through which we can become a part of the supply chain for creating masks and gloves. This will help in reviving the sector here,” Kasar said.