In Maharashtra, it is time to to talk about marginalised workers

Mill workers were central to Mumbai in the past. Their invisibility today can be traced to political decisions
A mill workers’ protest, Mumbai, August 28, 2018(Bhushan Koyande/HT)
A mill workers’ protest, Mumbai, August 28, 2018(Bhushan Koyande/HT)
Updated on Oct 08, 2019 06:41 PM IST
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By Sumeet Mhaskar

Elections to the Maharashtra assembly have been announced, and the actions by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) have become a rallying point for opposition unity. The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar is being investigated by the ED in connection with the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank scam. The opposition parties in Maharashtra have criticised the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government for using institutions like the ED to target them. A few weeks ago, the ED had begun inquiries into the leader of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) Raj Thackeray in the Kohinoor Mill land case. Then too, the opposition parties weighed in on Raj Thackeray’s side. Among the Left and progressive circles, there is support for Raj Thackeray, who was critical of the policies introduced by the BJP government.

The ED’s selective inquiry of the opposition leaders on the eve of the assembly polls, especially the ones who are critical of the current government, is questionable. However, the opposition unity against the ED has only helped the incumbent BJP-Shiv Sena government. The BJP and Shiv Sena have been successful in diverting the attention from public scrutiny of their policies; instead, they are seen as acting against corrupt politicians.

The ED’s actions against Raj Thackeray could have been an opportunity to discuss a crucial issue — the marginalisation of textile mill workers who even today continue to struggle for their rightful share. Kohinoor Mill, over which Raj Thackeray was under the scanner by the ED, is one of 58 textile mills in central Mumbai which closed between the 1990s to mid-2000s. It was under Pawar’s chief ministership that Development Control Regulations (DCR) were introduced in 1991, which, for the first time, granted mill owners the permission to sell parts of mill land in the real estate market for the revival of mills. While the revival of textile mills did not take place, the DCR was further amended in 2001 granting mill owners the permission to sell the entire mill lands in the real estate market. The changes in the DCR hastened the closure of textile mills, which subsequently resulted in the retrenchment of more than 90,000 workers — a vast majority of whom were Marathi speakers. Successive governments in Maharashtra have ensured that the shutting down of textile mills in central Mumbai went unchallenged.

The sale of textile mill land has been a murky affair given the high real estate value attached to it. Despite provisions for mill workers’ housing in the 2001 DCR, mill owners managed to keep 85% of the land — leaving a tiny proportion for civic amenities and low-cost housing. This is in contrast to the provisions of DCR 1991 whereby a third of the land share was for meant for the Municipal Corporation, a third for Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) for low-cost housing, and the remaining third for the mill owners.

It is on the issue of housing and alternative employment that the textile workers have been mobilising since the early 2000s. So far, about 12,000 workers have been allocated flats at subsidised prices. However, more than 80,000 workers are still waiting for their share. It is against this backdrop the purchasing of Kohinoor Mill land by Raj Thackeray in association with Unmesh Joshi — son of former Maharashtra chief minister Manohar Joshi — raises an important question. Despite his claims of speaking for the Marathi manoos, Raj Thackeray has done little to address the problems of mill workers.

Raj Thackeray and Sharad Pawar passed the blame for the state of the mills on to 1982-83 strike leader Datta Samant. In February 2018, in a public conversation titled Shodh Marathi Manacha (In Search of Marathi Mind) with Pawar, Raj Thackeray discussed various challenges before contemporary Maharashtra. The plight of Mumbai mill workers figured prominently. Pawar told the audience that he, along with the Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and the socialist trade union leader George Fernandes, organised a meeting during the 1982-83 strike to oppose striking leader Datta Samant. Pawar stated that they were concerned that if the mills did not restart, the owners would eventually close them and construct high-rise towers. This narrative held Datta Samant accountable for the closure of the mills and the dispersal of the Marathi-speaking workers from the city’s working-class district.

It conveniently ignored Pawar’s role in the introduction of DCR which proved a catalyst in the closure of the mills and the subsequent layoffs which further resulted in decrease in economic mobility of the workers and their families. Once a powerful voice in the city’s politics, mill workers are increasingly becoming invisible in the urban economic transformation that is taking place in central Mumbai. This election should have been an opportunity to engage with the challenges faced by mill workers and other such groups.

Sumeet Mhaskar teaches at OP Jindal Global University and is currently working on a book on Mumbai’s mill workers. The views expressed are personal
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Wednesday, October 27, 2021