Forgotten city

Jan 22, 2012, 05:38 IST | Paromita Vohra

January 18 was a significant day in Bombay's history. On that day in 1982, 2,50,000 of the city's mill workers, began one of the biggest, longest strikes ever, under the leadership of Datta Samant.

January 18 was a significant day in Bombay's history. On that day in 1982, 2,50,000 of the city's mill workers, began one of the biggest, longest strikes ever, under the leadership of Datta Samant.

They thronged the streets of Byculla and Parel demanding wage increases -- but more importantly the repeal of the Bombay Industrial Representation Act, which allowed only one union to represent the entire industry. If the union sold out the workers, which they felt the existing Congress union had done, they were powerless to turn to another union.

The strike had tragic consequences. Mill owners leading the industry down the road of willful sickness and some deft diversion of funds, seized this opportunity to shut down an industry they had made unprofitable. Slowly, the mills were shut down. Textile manufacture shifted into the unorganised power loom sector where workers did not need unions, because they had no rights.

In the heart of the city, from Dadar to Byculla, once home to the mills and the distinctive chawls constructed for workers who came to build this huge new industry, to build the city of Bombay, the streets were deceptively colourful and busy. But all around, the Gothic mills brooded, their dusty windows like the clouded eyes of an old ghost who did not know he was dead.

Of the 2,50,000 unemployed, many killed themselves, returned to their villages, or just disappeared. About a lakh continued the long struggle for their outstanding wages. In the 1990s, the government changed the development rules, allowing the sale of mill lands. The redevelopment of Lower Parel into Upper Worli's upscale housing, media offices and clubs began.

You may say that's the painful but inevitable collateral damage of change. And in theory you would be right. Except it's the inevitable damage of injustice. Mill-owners reaping real estate profits never owned that land to start with. It was leased to them cheaply, to help develop the city's economy. Land sale was ostensibly allowed, so they could settle workers dues. But workers struggled through every kind of court for a decade before they managed to get some dues, a laughable fraction of the crores that property generated.

Some land was supposed to go to the city -- for open spaces and recreational centres. All that was built was upscale housing and privately owned entertainment centres like Phoenix Mills, where a good time don't come cheap. So the city, lost a chance to reimagine itself as more than parking lots, expensive flats and traffic.

Some land was earmarked for affordable housing as an acknowledgement of workers' contribution to the city's growth -- about 75,000 houses. 10,000 have been built. The government won't set a price for them, so the lottery can't be announced. The best scams are the legal ones, aren't they?

Workers sense that the plan could be to eventually tire them out and sell them these houses on the market. They'd make good "Studio apartments" for hipster artists. But as about 2000 of them gathered this January 18, to begin a fresh struggle for these homes, they didn't look like they were planning to get tired. I knew I wouldn't see this on the news much -- the yellow gajras, the white topis, the flash of a smile in a lined face, the lusty slogan shouting and sardonic speeches. I wondered if it could have a good end, this story no one's interested in any more.

For the sake of the city's soul it should, because a homogenous city of inscrutable windows and doors that shut people out doesn't sound like a nice place to live.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper.

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