by Rama Rajagopalakrishna as spoken to Melissa Fernandes
The first cotton mill of Mumbai, the Bombay Spinning and Weaving Company, was set up in 1856. Following this, several other cotton mills sprung up across the city, employing thousands of people. Girangaon (now Girgaon or Girgaum), meaning 'mill village' in Marathi, had close to 130 textile mills. Mill workers lived in nearby chawls (small-buildings) in Central Mumbai and managers lived in special quarters. Most of the labourers came from the Konkan region.
The mills became the identity of Mumbai. Major political parties played a significant role in the workings of mills and this led to the prosperity of the city. Between 1950 and 1960, the population of Bombay rose to 11 million. This was the first decade after independence and people respected law and order. But soon, unrest between workers and management led to conflicts, agitations and a major labour movement. Besides individual political parties fielding their own labour movements, union leader, Dr Dutta Samant started a localised independent trade union called Kamgar Aghadi. Most mill workers preferred to support him.
In 1982, Dutta Samant called for a strike. The strike's demands were higher salaries, bonuses and an independent union that was not controlled by any political party. The government did not agree to Dutta's demands as it considered him to be a political threat. Things started to get worse at the mills as lakhs of workers joined the strike and more than 50 textile mills were shut down. The city started to suffer severe economic losses, which led to the deterioration of living conditions of mill workers. Several workers lost their jobs. The strike was followed by a lockout and the mills remained silent. Talks between mill owners, the government and labour leaders broke down. More mills started to shut down, leaving thousands jobless and homeless. The mill owners took advantage of this situation by bringing in modernised machinery and moving to Gujarat, where land was not so expensive. Thus, the mills completely disappeared from Mumbai by the 1990s.
The new millennium has seen radical change in Mumbai's landscape. Most places that once housed mills have been sold to builders. Malls and high-rise buildings have started to sprout across Central Mumbai. The government stipulated that housing should be provided to those workers who were affected by the sale of mill-lands, but this has not yet been implemented. Mills that formed a part of the city's history over the last 150 years have given way to the 'mall-culture' and most mill workers are either jobless or have been reduced to menial labourers.
The government is trying to put together a museum that highlights the growth of the textile industry and mills in Mumbai. Sadly, that is all that is left of this once glorious past.
Rama Rajagopalakrishna is the daughter of a mill worker and has lived in Central Mumbai all her life.