Once, textile mills were Mumbai’s most identifiable feature. Migrants stayed in small rooms and their earnings — sent back via money orders — would keep their home fire burnings and finance the economies of their hometowns.
These girni kamgar (mill workers) belonged to the lower-middle-class and were receptacles and purveyors of the city’s dynamic culture.
In one fell swoop, all was lost. This was a decisive moment for trade unionism in Mumbai. This was traumatic for their families and it left a scar on the city’s psyche.
Mumbai, with its resilient spirit, survived to fight another day. What happened to the mills is too well known to bear repetition. Suffice to say that the overwhelming number of mill workers were left to fend for themselves. The booty was gleefully divided amongst themselves— thanks to the amendment to Development Control Rule 58, which allowed for the sale of mill land — by political agents and builders.
It is in this context that news of the revival of some textile mils assumes significance.
On the face of it, it seems a welcome development. It follows the viable method of releasing blocked resources — via sale of unproductive assets — and transforming unlocked wealth as investable resources.
There are a couple of caveats. First, this decision must have its basis in rational calculus, leading to a bankable project rather than a bleeding-heart attitude. Second, we must understand that although the word ‘revival’ is being used, the reopened mills are far from their original form.
The new avatar will be — as it must be — leaner and efficient. Times have changed and a market-driven character is a given. The management and workers must understand the changed environment and the risks.
One lurking issue that needs to be flagged has to do with the specific location and the land values involved. It is moot if the values produced by the projects can withstand the implicit costs of high land values. It is hoped that the proponents of this project have got their calculations right.
Even then, one must avoid the romantic notion that this could mark the beginning of a largescale revival of the mills’ old glory. At best, we can hope for a one-off success story.
The writer is director and professor, Vibhooti Shukla Chair in Urban Economics, Department of Economics, University of Mumbai