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Gujarat election: Restoring textile hub’s lost glory low on parties’ agenda

Once the core of Ahmedabad’s economy, mill workers say politicians turned a blind eye to their ordeal as they ceased to be a voting bloc.

india Updated: Jul 14, 2017 07:30 IST
Gulam Jeelani and Hiral Dave
A dilapidated chimney is all that remains of Calico Mills, once considered the ‘pride of Gujarat’. (Gulam Jeelani / HT Photo)
A dilapidated chimney is all that remains of Calico Mills, once considered the ‘pride of Gujarat’. (Gulam Jeelani / HT Photo)

A right turn after crossing the Behrampura bridge over the Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad leads to a deserted plot that used to house Calico Mills, once “the pride of Gujarat”.

In one corner of the plot, a dilapidated chimney is all that remains of the mill. Sitting there with his friends, Mehboob, 35, shares the ordeal his family faced after his mill worker father Karim lost his job in the 1990s.

“I remember my father setting up a roadside cart selling sweets. For some time he even worked at a power loom factory earning Rs 200 per day. The memories are still fresh in my mind,” says Karim who sells bangles.

In 2010, the Calico Mills land, plant and machinery were auctioned off for Rs 270 crore.

Once the core of the city’s economy, the textile mills are a thing of the past in Ahmedabad. Today, of the 65 mills that were operational in the 1990s, only seven are functional, employing nearly 13,000 workers.

Also, the absence of a strong workers’ movement in Gujarat has weakened the case for revival of the mills as it hardly figures on the agenda of political parties in the upcoming state assembly polls.

“Till a few years ago, the 65 mills used to employ 1.5 lakh workers, mostly Dalits or Muslims,” says Amrish Patel, a labour advocate.

Industry watchers say the state’s textile industry declined as it could not sustain the competition from cheaper power loom products and a shift in demand away from cotton textiles.

“The mill owners failed to modernise and some of them could not repay the loans taken from financial institutions. The mills that modernised managed to survive and are being touted as success stories,” says Amar Barot, general secretary of the Textile Labour Association (TLA).

Curiously, Ahmedabad has not witnessed any major workers’ movement since Independence. Most of the 1.5 lakh mill workers were on the rolls of TLA that followed the Gandhian method of negotiating with owners.

In October 2015, nearly 600 workers of Arvind Mills resumed work after a protest demanding bonus and pay hike. A similar stalemate over wages in July 2012 was settled peacefully.

“The only recent agitation by workers in Ahmedabad was the month-long safai kamdars’ strike, which ended after the city corporation agreed to their demands,” says Amrish Patel.

The manufacturing units of Arvind Limited in Naroda are among those that bucked the decline through constant upgrades. Today it is the country’s largest denim manufacturer with over 10,000 workers at its three units in Ahmedabad.

“We made all efforts to modernise with time. Today we even provide denims to international brands like Arrow and Tommy Hilfiger apart from running our own cloth stores,” says an Arvind mill manager.

Having realised that it was losing its dominant position in the sector, the government notified the Gujarat State Textile Policy in 2013, aimed at promoting the textile sector.

“We were lagging behind many states despite being known globally for our mills. The new policy was aimed at infusing a new lease of life into the textile sector,” says RH Vasava, deputy secretary in the labour and employment department.

Till 2016, the new policy had attracted investments worth Rs 9,208 crore, he said. Besides, the state has also rolled out labour-friendly schemes to benefit workers in different sectors.

But it’s hard to tell whether these belated moves will help revive Ahmedabad ‘s famous mills.

Elections to the Gujarat assembly are no more than a few months away and Mehboob is filled with despair. He says no political party is even promising to retrieve the lost glory of the mills since mill workers have ceased to be a significant voting bloc. “Most mill workers have moved on to other sectors or trades,” points out political analyst, Achyut Yagnik.

(In a few months, PM Narendra Modi’s home state goes to the polls in what is being billed as one of the most important tests for the BJP before the general elections in 2019. HT travels to five of Gujarat’s most important cities and through them examines some of the issues that are shaping the poll campaign. This is the concluding part of a five-part series)