Surekha Murudkar’s response to the reopening of three mills in Girangaon is one of weary scepticism.
“After so many years of struggle to get my parents their dues, I’ve learnt that mill owners cannot be relied upon,” says the 35-year-old, whose parents, Ramdas and Sharda, worked as mill hands in Lower Parel’s Matulya Mill for nearly 20 years before the strike of 1982. Children when their parents were rendered jobless, Surekha and her two younger siblings were brought up and educated on money borrowed from relatives. “Now, we will have to spend our adulthood trying to repay all of it,” she says.
For the last seven years, the Murudkars and other workers’ families have been fighting a court case against Matulya Mill, demanding their dues. “My father got only Rs 1.5 lakh of the Rs 5 lakh due to him. We don’t know when our struggle will end, but we have to keep going,” says Surekha.
When the mill finally sent them a cheque of Rs 1.8 lakh last May, the family’s hopes rose, only to be crushed again. “The cheque bounced, and it turned out that the Pune bank on which it was drawn did not exist,” says Surekha.
Though many others in the mill workers’ community share a similar story, Surekha was forced to bear the hardship from a very young age. Just eight days before the mills downed their shutters in 1982, the then nine-year-old Surekha accidentally knocked down a hot kerosene lamp, suffering severe burns on her face and hands. The family had to borrow heavily to pay the hospital bills, but the scars have remained. “My parents still hope to see their daughters married some day,” she says.
In her seven-member family, it is the daughters who generate most of the income. Surekha, who had to leave school after Class 7, works as an embroidery artist in a small garments factory, while her 30-year-old sister, an arts graduate, is a typist. Her brother manages a few odd jobs now and then. “But with rising inflation, a family income of Rs 9,500 is not enough to pay back a debt of Rs 3.5 lakh,” says Surekha.
All seven members of the family live in a 10 feet by 12 feet chawl room opposite the mill.
The newly-opened mills offer no hope for Surekha, who fought in vain with many politicians and municipal officials over issues like employment, inflation, housing and water. “I don’t expect anything from them now. Besides, my parents are old now and years of working in a cotton mill has given them asthma. My brother has passed his Class 12. Why would he want a menial job in a mill?” says Murudkar.