Girangaon (Marathi: गिरणगाव, literally “mill village”) was a name commonly used to refer to an area now part of central Mumbai, India, which at one time had almost 130 textile mills, with the majority being cotton mills. The mills of Girangaon contributed significantly to the prosperity and growth of Mumbai during the later nineteenth century and for the transformation of Mumbai into a major industrial metropolis. Girangaon covered an area of 600 acres (2.4 km2), not including the workers’ housing. The mill workers lived in a community, and they fostered a unique culture which shaped Mumbai at the turn of the twentieth century. This textile industry flourished until the early 1980s, after which most of the mills were shut down, as the owners deemed them unprofitable and declared they were incapable of paying their workers’ wages.
Origins It was in the late 17th century when cotton trade between Mumbai and China began.. The riches derived from selling the Chinese opium during British colonial rule, was later used to finance the cotton trade. Cotton trade really took off with the establishment of a rail link to Thana in 1853 and then to Deccan in 1863. The rail link allowed raw cotton to be transported from its most important growing areas (Nagpur) to Mumbai. A positive outcome of the large quantities of cotton coming into Bombay was the founding of warehouses between the railway line and the port at the Cotton Green dockyard, Sewri.
All these elements gave Bombay an inherent advantage in the world cotton trade. Initially Bombay was only a trading post, but in 1854 with the establishment of the first cotton mill -“Bombay Spinning And Weaving company” at Tardeo in central Bombay – Bombay had stared the transition from trading to manufacturing. Encouraged by the success of the first cotton mill, the local businessmen quickly moved from trading to manufacturing. By the turn of the century cotton mills very an important part of the Bombay skyline, with well over a 100 cotton mills. Most of Bombays mills ended up located in the Girangaon area- the literally translation from the local Marathi means “mill village” – now part of Cenrtal Bombay which at its peak had about 130 textile mills, with the majority being cotton mills.
The mills workforce lived in the same area, their families, however, stayed back in their villages. Initially, employers constructed chawls in the vicinity of or even within the mills compound to accommodate the workers. Occasionally, several such chawls would border a common enclosed space. As the number of mills increased rapidly, there was huge strain on the availability of land and hence each room was occupied by a full family. Eventually, families of workers began to migrate to Bombay, and each room in a chawl would have to accommodate the whole family.
Life in Girangaon
Both men and women worked in the mills. They would start working there at a young age (some as young as 16), and worked 12 hours a day (from sunrise to sunset) until the passing of the Factories Act of 1847 restricted the working day to 10 hours. When the Great Bombay Textile Strike was declared in 1982 by Datta Samant, there were an estimated 240,000 workers in Girangaon. 90% of the population who worked at the mills lived within a 15-minute walking distance of them. Most of the buildings were chawls; a survey conducted in Parel in 1921 determined that 27% of the population in Parel lived in rooms with six or more people.
These chawls were built by both the government and the mill owners, but neither paid much attention to the quality of the housing. In 1929, one chawl in Dadar was described as being a “dark, unwholesome den into which the light of day does not penetrate and which of necessity breeds disease and pestilence.” Often the rooms did not have adequate ventilation, and the lack of lavatory and washing facilities distressed the women in particular. The windows were kept closed to keep out the stench of the gutters and to keep dirty water from flowing into the house during the monsoon season. Due to this overcrowding, the distinction between home and street was blurred; Girangaon residents spent more of their time on the street than in the home.
There was great participation in communal festivals likeMoharram, Ganesh Chaturthi and Gokulashtami. Local shop keepers and mill owners were often coerced into contributing to such festivals, and adjoining localities competed with each other in the grandness of their contributions. The local liquor shop or gymnasium was a common meeting place. The workers of Girangaon patronized arts like poetry, theatre and dance (tamasha). Several notable actors first found fame here.
Protests In late 1981, Dutta Samant was chosen by a large group of Bombay mill workers to lead them in a precarious conflict between the Bombay Millowners Association and the unions, thus rejecting the INTUC-affiliated Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh which had represented the mill workers for decades. Samant planned a massive strike forcing the entire industry of the city to be shut down for over a year. It was estimated that nearly 250,000 workers went on strike and more than 50 textile mills were shut in Bombay.
In August 1982, the city police briefly went on strike, apparently in sympathy with the workers resulting into the army and Border Security Force to be called in to control the unrest. Samant demanded that, along with wage hikes, the government scrap theBombay Industrial Act of 1947 and that the RMMS would not longer be the only official union of the city industry. While fighting for greater pay and better conditions for workers, Samant and his allies also sought to capitalize and establish their power on the trade union scene in Mumbai. Although Samant had links with the Congress and Maharashtra politician Abdul Rehman Antulay,Prime Minister Indira Gandhi considered him a serious political threat.
Samant’s control of the mill workers made Gandhi and other Congress leaders fear that his influence would spread to the port and dock workers and make him the most powerful union leader in India’s commercial capital. Thus the government took a firm stance of rejecting Samant’s demands and refusing to budge despite the severe economic losses suffered by the city and the industry. As the strike progressed through the months, Samant’s militancy in the face of government obstinacy led to the failure of any attempts at negotiation.
Disunity and dissatisfaction over the strike soon became apparent, and many textile mill owners began moving their plants outside the city. After a prolonged and destabilizing confrontation, the strike collapsed with no concessions having been obtained for the workers. The closure of textile mills across the city left tens of thousands of mill workers unemployed and, in the succeeding years, most of the industry moved away from Bombay after decades of being plagued by rising costs and union militancy. Although Samant remained popular with a large block of union activists, his clout and control over Bombay trade unions disappeared.
Peak and decline At their peak in 1980, the mills employed 300,000 workers. Indian cinema of the 1980s and 1990s frequently drew themes from the life of the mill workers. However, the mills were permanently closed after the Great Bombay Textile Strike of 1982, which went on for 18 months at many mills and triggered the end of the struggling industry, with most of the mills being shut down after the strike. By 2007, only 25,000 people worked in the few remaining mills.
Redevelopment In recent years, the mills have been extensively redeveloped, many becoming malls and discothèques. The Kohinoor Mills in Dadar were bought for Rs.421 crore by Matoshree Realtors and Kohinoor Consolidated Transport Network Ltd., companies which were floated by Raj Thackeray and Manohar Joshi respectively. Phoenix mills, Parel was converted into a “luxury mall”. In 2005, the government-owned National Textile Corporation auctioned five mills, covering 600 acres, for Rs 2020 crore. In February 2009, the NTC decided to auction another nine mills, covering an area of 90 acres, for about Rs 4000 crore. The Shrinivas Mills of Lalbaug, covering 16 acres, are being redeveloped into World One – Asia’s tallest residential building.
There are conservation efforts underway to preserve the old mills as museums. Such a museum was opened at the United Mills in Lalbaug. A popular play, Cotten 54, Polyester 64, has been written, based on Neera Adarkar and Meena Menon’s book, One hundred years, One hundred voices. The Millworkers of Girangaon: An Oral History. A festival was organized by an NGO Pukar to celebrate the culture and people of Girangaon in November 2008. Seven mill structures were granted heritage protection status by the Government of Maharashtra.
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