Saturday, May 15, 2010

Ripping the Fabric, The Decline of Mumbai and its Mills: Darryl D'Monte

Realms of paper, hours, days and years of policy making (or changing), scores of protests have been spent analysing, dissecting and brooding over the Mumbai mills and its workers. Most of these point at the great textile strike of 1982 as the reason for decline of the mills. What has been made popular is that the workers were responsible for the decline, as they struck work in difficult times.

Darryl D'Monte's book is a refreshing change. D'Monte takes a holistic view of what caused the decline of Mumbai's production industry. The only problem (probably) is that D'Monte focusses on what has been done to make use of mill land, now that the mills have closed down. So, for those who are looking at what has been the effect of the 1982 strike on workers' lives, you will be disappointed.

D'Monte points out all that was wrong with the government- both state level and central-- policies that triggered the downfall of the manufacturing industry in Mumbai. He points out that the socialist India's policy of promoting handloom and cottage industry was the starting point of declining of mills. Organised mills, like the ones in Mumbai, were placed with restrictions that didn't allow them to compete freely in the market. On the other hand, unorganised powerlooms sprung up in the villages as cottage industries, which didn't have workers' unions, and used government policies to undercut the mills. Coupled with this, was the Maharashtra government's policy to not allow mills to expand but ask them to setup industries in the backward areas to develop those places.

Then, there were the mill owners, who did not reinvest the profits they earned, for modernising and improving productivity of the mills. Instead, they gave way hefty dividends to shareholders (of which, they were the largest). As time went by and as machinery became technologically backward, it made economic sense for mill owners to shut it down and sell off the land.

And last of all, the political parties. In 1946, the Bombay Industrial Relations (BIR) Act ruled that there would be only one union, the Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh (RMMS), that would be allowed to represent all the mill workers. This union went into the control of the Congress, which was the ruling party of the day. And slowly, corruption crept into the union and union officers started colluding with the mill owners. D'Monte highlights the case of Khatau Mills, where the owner, Sunit Khatau, engineered the defeat of sitting mill president and brought in a person of his choice. This was done so that the new president would consent the sale of the mill's land in Byculla and Khatau would restart the mill with a reduced number of workers.

Now that the mills were closed, and the government and mill owners not interested in getting it started, what can be done with the mills? The mill redevelopment policy came in too late. By that time, even genuinely interested owners had lost the zeal to restart the mills. D'Monte goes into details of all the studies- official as well as unofficial- that have been done to make use of the mill land. Mill land measures upto 600 acres, and that too in the heart of Mumbai, most of it in Lalbag, Parel. He points out how different studies recommend using land for setting up convention centres, five-star hotels, hospitals, developing commercial spaces and open public spaces. The money from the proceeds were to be used to pay the workers. But, most of these plans do not address, what can be done to restore the workers' jobs? Only a few mention using the mill buildings to run non-polluting industries, where workers should be re-trained to take such jobs. The book points out to the rise of the underworld, which found its foot soldiers and bosses from the ex-workers in the mills. With no jobs coming their way, they joined the underworld to make money and help families survive.

D'Monte also describes the unscrupulousness of the mill owners, who twisted the redevelopment policy to make money out of selling the land. Like showing that they didn't have 15% open space and selling the land off. Then, demolishing a few buildings and selling it off further. Phoenix Mills owners, the Ruias, even went to the extent of setting up a bowling alley and spa in the mill compound, after telling the BIFR that, it was the workers who have demanded these 'recreation facilities'. Naturally, workers are angered by such plans , as the areas that they once worshipped as their workplace, were being turned into amusement and entertainment areas. And they didn't have any place in these plans.

D'Monte closes with what can be done about the docklands in Mumbai, which too occupy large swathes of lands that may come up for development. He points out that since this land belongs to the public (government), there should be an all inclusive plan to develop it. Left to the market forces, this would see nothing but commercial structures and high rises for the rich coming up in the place of the docks. While this has happened with the mills, something needs to be done to prevent further use of land by speculators and realtors. The public needs to have something for it as the government has doled out enough concessions to all the industries in Mumbai.

After reading this book, we realise that the mill workers were least responsible for closure of the mills. It was a lethal combination of flawed government policy on priorities for industries, unscrupulous mill owners, corrupt union and politicians tying up with the mill owners to grab their share of the pie in the mill land. The hapless worker became a mere spectator in the bigger game for the mill lands.
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