Bombay : The Mumbai of Fishermen and Mill workers , from Mills to Malls !

BOMBAY … or MUMBAI … Many have assaulted this beauty over the centuries. Few have loved it and even fewer have left their mark. The first settlers of the coastal region , the “Koli fishermen” named their poor shady settlement on the malaria-infested coast after the Hindu Goddess “Mumbadevi”  that eventually became “Mumbai,” The Portuguese called the place “Bom Baía,” or “Good Bay.” They gave it to their Princess Katharina of Braganza as part of her dowry. When England’s King Charles II asked his new wife about the place, she responded that it was probably “somewhere in Brazil.”

In 1668, the British Crown leased Bombay to the British East India Company. The company’s merchants were the first to grasp the city’s potential, turning Bombay into a cotton manufacturing center and calling it the “Manchester of the East.”
In honor of Britain’s King George V, London builders constructed the Gateway of India, a triumphal arch, at the city’s harbor in 1924. Still a Bombay landmark to this day, the arch includes a plaque that reads: “Urbs Prima in Indis,” or “Most Important City in the Colonial Empire.”

Before the middle of the nineteenth century, India used to export cotton to Britain, and then reimport the textile. In 1820 the total textile import cost only Rs. 350,000. However, these costs escalated tremendously until in 1860 textile imports stood at Rs. 19.3 million.
The impetus towards the founding of a cotton industry came from Indian entrepreneurs. The first Indian cotton mill, “The Bombay Spinning Mill”, was opened in 1854 in Bombay by Cowasji Nanabhai Davar. Opposition from the Lancashire mill owners was eventually offset by the support of the British manufacturers of textile machinery.

  • 1854 was the year when Mumbai got its first mill called ‘Bombay Spinning Mill’ famous for producing Cotton textiles to be exported to Britain.
  •  By 1870 there were about 13 mills and by 1875 total count of mills in Mumbai was about 70 which still went up to 83 by 1915.
  • South Mumbai was the place selected to Major mill business which still has lots of old mills and industries which are now closed. Famous mill locations are Lower Parel, Parel, Lalbaug, Byculla.

By 1870 there were 13 mills in Bombay. Cotton exports grew during the American Civil War, when supplies from the USA were interrupted. At the end of 1895 there were 70 mills; growing to 83 in 1915. A period of stagnation set in during the recession of the 1920’s. In 1925 there were 81 mills in the city. After World War II, under strong competition from Japan, the mills declined. In 1953 there remained only 53 mills in the city.

The Cotton Boom
The growth of the cotton industry was spurred, and for a small time eclipsed, by the the cotton boom. Before the American Civil War, the mills of England imported only 20% of their cotton from India. With the blockade of the Confederate ports, Indian cotton prices rose. By 1865, when General Lee’s army surrendered, Bombay had earned 70 million pounds sterling in the cotton trade.

This money spurred on a financial bubble, with land reclamation schemes and the dock yards attracting huge investments. By January 1865 Bombay had 31 banks, 8 reclamation companies, 16 cotton pressing companies, 10 shipping companies, 20 insurance companies and 62 joint stock companies. Within two months the American Civil War ended and most of these companies went into liquidation. Large numbers of speculators became bankrupt. However, wealth had been created and this led immediately to an industrial growth.
Indian Entrepreneurship
The cotton mills of Bombay, and the rest of India, were owned and managed mainly by Indians. The initial investments came from families of the mill-owners, mainly obtained from trading. Later, when shares became available to the public, much of the ownership still remained Indian. As an example, of the 53 mills in the city in 1925, only 14 were British owned. The management and directorships of these mills were also mainly Indian. Of the 386 directorships recorded in 1925, only 44 were English.
Social Dimensions
The rapid growth in mills was sustained by a large migration of mainly Marathi speaking workers into the city. Most often, the male member of the family would work in Bombay, leaving the rest of the family in the village. These workers were initially accommodated in hostels. Eventually, these chawls became tenements, with full families crammed into single rooms. The mills filled up Parel and then expanded westwards all the way to WorliBombay was predominantly a city of male migrants.
The high density of population, coupled with low pays and insanitary living conditions caused high morbidity rates in Bombay. The infamous plague epidemics at the end of the 19th century only equaled the morbidity due to other diseases. The efforts of the City Improvement Trust to better living conditions was only partially successful. Many of today’s slums are the byproducts of the cotton boom; as much so as the Victorian Gothic architecture of the Fort area.

The Mills that made Bombay : Girangaon and its mill workers, both men and women, shaped the metropolis of Bombay till the shutdown of the 1980s.
Girangaon or the village of mills (Giran = Mill in Marathi)  was at the centre of Bombay’s evolution into a modern metropolis. Girangaon stretches over a thousand acres — from Byculla to Dadar and from Mahalaxmi to Elphinstone Road.

Its evolution started in the mid-19th century with the first textile mill being set up in 1851. The industry grew substantially in the 1870s and 1880s, all through till the first half of the 20th century, leading to a massive concentration of mills and ancillary workshops, workers and job-seekers in Girangaon.  The textile industry was one of the first modern industries in India and mill workers among the pioneers of trade unions in the country. It was a stronghold of the Communist Party and an important part of the history of Indian independence. It was also here that the right-wing Marathi party called the Shiv Sena took shape and later grew to occupy center-stage in Maharashtra. The Bombay mafia was born here. So the history of Girangaon is, in a sense, intertwined with the history of modern India.
Mill workers were the first migrants to the city, braving the arduous journey from their native villages to work in adverse conditions. They put down roots, evolved social institutions and associations, fought great political battles, entertained and educated the city with their plays, music and verse. They influenced its economy, politics, culture and space in innumerable ways. They came from all over the country and made the city cosmopolitan. They gave the city its famous tagline: “A city that never sleeps”. They worked late into the night and then poured out on to the streets for some revelry. Girangaon remained the stage for many political movements, from the Independence struggle to the Samyukta Maharashtra movement. The sheer size of the community, integrated and well-organised through multi-layered institutions, made it inevitable that it was a politically alive space.

The rise and now the Fall !                                                                                                   The twist in the fortune of mill workers and mills came with automation , power-looms , un-manageable economies of scale of labor, high cost of labor along with decrease in demand , stiff competition from world over. The business of cotton mills became simply unsustainable !

The cotton mill industry in India was established by urban traders in Mumbai and Ahmedabad who had access to cheap electricity, possessed their own funds, and had pioneered a unique system of labor contractors to ensure a steady flow of workers from rural areas. The textile mill industry reaped economies of scale by integrating processes such as weaving and spinning, and rose to become one of the world’s largest by the turn of the 19th century.

In 1982 about 2.5 lakhs mill workers went on strike against ‘Bombay Mill Owner Association’ with leader ‘Datta Samant’ demanding wage increase.Wage pressures added to its woes, while rising real estate prices offered a more lucrative alternative to owners.The 18-month strike was the final nail in the coffin.

This untangled the knot between Mumbai and its mills. The biggest industrial dispute in Indian history led to the demise of Mumbai textile industry !

The textile industry was the largest source of employment in Mumbai, and its fall reshaped many destinies in the mill district of south-central Mumbai, also known as Girangaon (village of the mills).  The untangling of the knot between Mumbai and the mills over the past three decades—as the mills gave way to malls and residential towers—marks one of the most dramatic—and for families of mill works, the most disruptive—urban transformations India has ever seen.

Gira(n)gaon with the prime land of the mills — a total of 600 acres — now sees a proliferation of luxury apartments, malls and commercial spaces.

From Mills to Malls                                                                                                                   “A great transformation from port city to textile mills city in Mumbai at around 1980’s was a boost to city economy. From then till now Dawn Mill at Lower parel, Zenzi mill, Phoenix mill, Kamla mills and other general mill industry was survival source to lakhs of mill workers in Mumbai, which is now converting to high rise buildings and commercial complexes..Malls ”  . The visible daily paradox of erstwhile shabby looking “mill-workers” replaced by the corporate slaves in high suits and their “Chawls” still standing dilapidated next to those corporate high rises !
Mumbai is at the heart of India’s growing economic power. But it is also the place where many of the subcontinent’s paradoxes can be found in close quarters. Billionaires, Bollywood stars and slum dwellers all want to be part of the new India.

Many wonder whether this can work, as Bombay, this bastard of Portuguese, British and Indian history, turns its crumbling textile factories into call centers, universities and art galleries, and as its slums are replaced by middle-class apartment buildings. Who are the political, economic and social visionaries who could tame this Moloch, and possibly transform it into a model for the world’s other problem-ridden mega-cities ?

(This quick curating of articles about Bombay mills was inspired after my recent casual but nostalgic visit to the city on Dec 28-29 2014 , after many years to revisit old landmarks )



About Prasad Bhave

Clinical Scientist / Healthcare Informatics Consultant
This entry was posted in Bombay, Cotton Mills, Mills, Mumbai, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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