Once abuzz with customers before Gandhi Jayanti, the “khadi haat” shop located within the compound of the Majoor Mahajan Sangh — Gujarat’s oldest labour union founded by Mahatma Gandhi for textile workers — wears a deserted look with a lone maniquin on the glass shelves draped in a fading attire, while rolls of yellowing khadi adorn the dusty glass shelves of the old shop.
“This year we are yet to get the new stock that usually comes just before Gandhi Jayanti. What you see behind the shelves are a year old and hence nobody turns up to buy them. There was a time in the early 1980s when we used to sell Rs 1-1.25 lakh worth of khadi daily. Those days, before October 2, this shop would be crammed… a person could buy kurta, pajama, vest and a cap for Rs 100. Today a small khadi handkerchief costs Rs 50 and a metre of khadi cloth is Rs 350. It is no more affordable for the poor,” says Uday Rana adding that the cooperative does not earn more than Rs 10 lakh a year by selling khadi, most of which is sold in and around Gandhi Jayanti.
Photographs of Mahatma Gandhi and his disciple Anusyaben Sarabhai — who set up the Majoor Mahajan Sangh — welcome those who step in to the shop located near Bhadra Fort, one of the most busiest sections of the old city of Ahmedabad.
A beautiful mural depicting Mahatma Gandhi leading a Satyagraha movement of textile workers adorn the building of the Majoor Mahajan Sangh that was built later in 1958. “Those were the times when over 40 per cent of the population of Ahmedabad city consisted of textile workers and their families. Most of the satyagraha movements carried out under his leadership were related to the wages of the workers,” said Mahendra Desai, secretary of the Sangh. “I have been manning the accounts desk for 35 years. Today only a few curious visitors walk in. When I joined in 1968, the compound of Majoor Mahajan and the entire area — which is now a bus stand for the AMTS — used to filled with cycles of khadi buyers who were eager to make a purchase before October 2. The second shop at Pankore Naka (Khadia) used to be even more crowded. That shop has closed operations,” he said adding that he joined the cooperative after stepping out from CU Shah Science and Commerce college in Ahmedabad and continued to serve at the institution that was born in 1920 after Gandhiji sat on a hunger strike demanding a wage hike for the textile mill workers.
The leader of the workers was Ansuyaben Sarabhai who was the elder sister of Ambalal Sarabhai, one of Gujarat’s largest mill owners back then, was declared the life-long president of the Sangh by Mahatma Gandhi in February 1920. By the year 1978, the labour union was representing 1.5 lakh workers of 65 textile mills in Gujarat.
“I could not complete my studies. I left college after my second year of Bachelor of Science. My father who was textile worker had lost his job as his mill closed down,” said Uday who hails from one of those families affected by the closure of textile mills in Ahmedabad.
“There was a time when nobody would dare to move around here without wearing khadi. Times have changed,” says the employee of the cooperative who continues to wear khadi to work.
The khadi shop where Uday works is run by the Majoor Mahajan Khadi Haat Sahakari Mandali — a cooperative body whose chairman is Mahendra Desai, who is also the secretary of the Majoor Mahajan Sangh next door. The three-storey structure of the Sangh continues to display a blue and white board in English which reads “Textile Workers Association” is largely lying unused. Even the ground floor is sparsely populated with just 12 staff members for operations”.
“When I joined this organisation in 1969, the association had a staff strength of 237 regulars and 500 part-timers. During those times, 1.4 lakh workers who were associated with 70 textile mills were part of the association. Today we have just 2,100 members from five textile mills,” says 80-year-old Ramanlal Patel who has been heading the organisation for a decade. He said the textile workers associated currently with the labour union are from within Ahmedabad city only.
When asked about the current role of the textile association, which has given rise to leaders such as Gulzarilal Nanda (who became the interim Prime Minister twice), Khandubai Desai (former Governor of Andhra Pradesh) and Ela Bhatt (head of SEWA), Patel who now attends office only in the afternoon for a few hours said, “The Association acts as mediator and is currently working to get the dues of about 8,000-odd workers who are still to be compensated after the textile mills closed down 25 years ago. Their prayers are pending in the Gujarat High Court. However, many of them have been compensated.”
“We had akhadas, library and angawadis used to be run from the same compound. Now everything has closed down,” he says about the building where it is easier to spot typewriters than computers.