“It’s obvious. Nobody wants the common man here,” says Santosh Mayekar, a 32-year-old chemical engineer leaning on the wooden railing in the verandah of his chawl in Jam Mills Compound, Lalbaug. “This is the globalisation of South Mumbai, where there is no place for us. They want only one class of people here.”
Mayekar’s words echo the bitter insecurities of the residents of chawls in Girangaon — the old mill belt stretching from Worli to Byculla. The National Textile Corporation’s (NTC’s) decision to revive three old mills in the area has infused hope for the revival of this belt and encouraged development.
Local residents, mostly families of mill workers, are aware that this could change their lives. They know that even if mills restart and they are rehabilitated in the same locality, they may be reduced to living in a ghetto in an area they once dominated.
But they do not want to move out. “We don’t mind if we don’t get road-facing homes or we are pushed to a corner behind fancy buildings,” says Mayekar. “As long as it is on this land.”
Girangaon has moved from being an industrial hub to a fancy commercial and residential address. Old chawls have made way for plush high-rises. Chawl residents are, literally, being pushed into the background.
After redevelopment, towers, where flats will sell for anything between Rs 10,000 and Rs 12,000 a square foot, face the busy Ambedkar Road. Tenants of chawls are resettled in buildings that almost apologetically hide behind these structures.
Some remnants from the past remain — shops selling CDs of Marathi films and playing the latest songs, stores selling everything a saffron party would need for a rally and even grocery shops that came up when retail chains were unheard of.
But kabaddi teams that existed in every chawl and khanaval (eateries run by housewives of the area) where mill workers had homecooked meals have vanished.
The lower-middle-class is now trying hard to fit in. “Their mentality is slowly changing,” says Arvind Korgaonkar (50), general secretary of the Jam Mills Compound residents’ association. “Those who shopped at Linking Road or Fashion Street now go to malls and factory outlets. They compromise and buy one trouser instead of two but are getting used to this new trend.”
They are holding on to their 10 ft x 10 ft homes — which can be sold for Rs 20 lakh to Rs 25 lakh — in the hope of redevelopment. But architect Shirish Gupte feels these tenants will eventually be forced to move out to distant suburbs to sustain their standard of living. “They can’t match the money and muscle power [of developers]. Development will cater to the end user and [the effort is towards] hiding something they feel is ugly,” says Gupte about the chawls. Even in cities like New York, Gupte says, poor parts of the city are tucked away from the tourist’s eye.
Developers like Abhishek Lodha, director, Lodha Group, deny that people buying high-end apartments in the mill belt want the chawls out of their sight. “It is a fact that Lower Parel has been an area where middle-class families live. Over time, with forces of economic and social development, the area will be developed but they [the middle-class] have been part of this place and must be respected for that,” he says.
Lodha does not expect a clash of cultures. “Mumbaiites are used to coexisting with different people. Mumbai is best known for high-rises next to slums.” Gupte says some old structures should be preserved like it has been done in the UK and Europe “But what we have here is vertical slums instead of horizontal development,” says Gupte.
Historian Mariam Dossal feels cultural disparities can be avoided. “You can’t stop a city from evolving. But you can ensure you plan [the development of an area] as a precinct,” says Dossal. “You can conceptualise change taking into consideration the interests of different groups.”
Dossal feels if local residents are equipped with new skills and facilities, they would go along with the transformation. “They feel this is a land grab. But if they are raised to an important level, it will give them a sense of dignity,” she says, adding that having a diverse set of people is important in any place. “The point is, do you see others as a threat or as people to learn from?”
1854: The first mill, called the Bombay Spinning Mill, was set up in the city by Cowasji Nanabhai Davar to produce cotton textiles for Britain.
1860s to 1915: There were 13 mills in Mumbai by 1870; the number shot up to 70 in 1875 and 83 in 1915. While the growth of the cotton industry led to this increase, mill hands — workers, mainly from the Konkan, who came and settled in Lalbaug, Lower Parel and Parel to work in these units — gave this boom its social dimension and Central Mumbai its cultural character.
1920s to 1960s: The Communists and unions belonging to other Left-leaning groups mobilised mill workers in the 1920s. There were two strikes, in 1928 and 1929 respectively, for which Communist leader Shripad Amrit Dange was arrested. The Left continued its hold over the unions till the 1960s. In the second half of that decade, the Shiv Sena emerged and sought to provide an alternative organisation — the Bharatiya Kamgar Sena. This started the period of decline for the Left, and it coincided with the gradual decline of the textile industry as service industries emerged in Mumbai.
1982: The previous year, mill workers chose Datta Samant as their leader in the battle for wage increase and bonus against the Bombay Mill Owners Association. Nearly 2.5 lakh workers went on strike on January 18. The strike continued for over a year, and its effects were disastrous: most of the 58 mills in the city closed, leaving over 1.5 lakh workers jobless. The textile industry never recovered after that.
1991: The state government brought in Development Control Rule 58, which said mill lands could be sold, but one third of the space would have to be reserved for open spaces [parks, grounds, etc], one third for affordable housing for mill workers and their families. The remaining one-third could be developed by mill owners.
2001: The state government amended Rule 58 to say it applied only to “open land” and not all the land of the mills. While all the mills took up over 600 acres, the open land came to just over 100 acres.
2005: In March 2005, the National Textiles Corporation (NTC) — which had 25 mills in the city worth nearly Rs 5,000 crore — sold Jupiter Mills for Rs 276 crore to IndiaBulls. In June, the Mumbai Textile Mills was sold for Rs 702 crore, and in July, Kohinoor Mill Number 3 was bought by Manohar Joshi and Raj Thackeray for Rs 421 crore. The same year, the Bombay High Court struck down the sale of five mills by the National Textile Corporation, saying it had sold the mills in violation of Rule 58. The order came on a petition filed by the Bombay Environment Action Group.
2006: The Supreme Court said the sale of the mills was legal and that changes to the rules for developing mills were valid.
2010: NTC has decided to reopen three mills — Tata Mills (Hindmata), India United Mills No. 5 (Kalachowkie) and Podar Mills (Chinchpokli) — on January 19.