Four decades later, mill workers still wait for redemption

What started out as a labour strike would go onto change the economics, politics, and socio-cultural structure of a city
On January 18, 1982 – exactly 40 years ago – more than a quarter of a million workers from nearly 60 textile mills in Mumbai struck work, demanding better wages and bonuses. (Kunal Patil/HT photo)
On January 18, 1982 – exactly 40 years ago – more than a quarter of a million workers from nearly 60 textile mills in Mumbai struck work, demanding better wages and bonuses. (Kunal Patil/HT photo)
Updated on Jan 18, 2022 12:05 AM IST
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MUMBAI: On January 18, 1982 – exactly 40 years ago – more than a quarter of a million workers from nearly 60 textile mills in Mumbai struck work, demanding better wages and bonuses. What started out as a labour strike would go onto change the economics, politics, and socio-cultural structure of a city that had made its mark in the world of global commerce partly due to its massive textile mill network, considered one of primary engines of Mumbai’s growth.

Regarded as one of the longest industrial strikes in history – it lasted over a year and was, technically, never withdrawn – rendered tens of thousands of workers jobless, thanks to an adamant stand taken by their union led by a doctor-turned-trade-union-leader named Datta Samant as well as mill owners, and the Central and state governments.

Apart from a rise in wages, the union also demanded the scrapping of the Bombay Industrial Relations Act, a law that allowed only one trade union – Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh (RMMS) – to function. For long, industrial workers had accused RMMS of being hand in glove with owners.

The long-drawn high-stakes tussle meant that the strike eventually fizzled out with workers never getting any of their demands met.

Rambhau Kadam (now 75) worked at Jupiter mills at Parel at the time. He recalls the day workers assembled at the mill’s gates. “We started sloganeering against the owners demanding our rightful dues,” Patil recollected. “However, after some months, we lost all steam. Even in the normal course, our salary would suffice us only a few days, and here we were, without wages for months. First, we sold our jewellery and then even our utensils to get our daily food. My children starved and my elder son dropped out of school.”

Raghoba Dhondu Bait who now lives in India United Mills chawl at Lalbaug in central Mumbai says his entire family was jobless. “My father and we four brothers worked in the mills and had no income for more than six months. We did odd jobs to support our family,” said Bait.

Dr Arvind Ganachari, former head of the history department at Mumbai university, was a close observer of the strike and its repercussions. “It destroyed the labour movement in Mumbai,” he said. “Workers’ lives were destroyed as industrialists began shifting their factories and mills out of Mumbai. It was not just the labour class that suffered, but also the literary class. The city’s cultural scene, dominated by Girangaon in central Mumbai, lost its primacy.”

Some trade unionists are of the opinion that Samant did not know when to stop, and it was this approach that turned the strike into a failure. He had even rejected a wage hike proposed by the state government.

Communist leader Vithal Ghag, then a worker at Swan mills in Sewri, said: “Samant should have understood that the mill workers could not remain jobless for years and should have tactfully negotiated, but he was adamant. He was caught in the trap set by the owners who anyway wanted to wind up their operations and commercially exploit their land. The Communist Party was trying to make him understand this, but he refused to listen to us.”

Former state minister Sachin Ahir and current RMMS chief said, “The whole atmosphere was tense and the workers were carried away by Dr Samant’s rhetoric. We were pleading that such a strike would deal a death blow to the textile mills and that was what precisely happened.”

Ahir said that a year after the strike began, eight mills shut down, while 20 others were taken over by the National Textile Corporation (NTC). “We never recovered,” he said.

Meanwhile, as the strike became a distant memory for a city progressing as a services hub, large swaths of land in central Mumbai occupied by these mills were replaced by huge skyscrapers following a decision by the Maharashtra government that allowed mill owners to sell their land, provided they allocated two-thirds of it to government agencies for civic amenities and mass housing. In 2003, the state government tweaked rules in favour of the mill owners, giving them back 340 acres of prime land that would otherwise have been demarcated for affordable housing and open spaces.

Mill workers, on the other hand, never recovered. Unable to sustain even a modest lifestyle in their original houses in chawls, they began moving to the city’s outskirts. Some, like Arun Gawli, took to crime and joined the underworld.

Datta Samant, meanwhile, was killed on January 16, 1997. Samant was travelling from Powai to Ghatkopar in a jeep when four unknown people obstructed his vehicle and fired at him. It was alleged that a trade union dispute was the motive behind the murder and that underworld don Chhota Rajan was connected to this killing. The case was later handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation.

Pravin Ghag, who heads the Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti, an outfit that fights for the rights of mill workers, says the mill-worker community that played an important role in the development of Mumbai, is now greatly marginalised. “A majority of the workers had to leave Mumbai and even now we have to agitate to get our rightful houses,” Ghag said. “These textile mills ran due to our sweat and blood, but in the revamp, we were made to beg for our share.” Forty years later, according to government documents, only 24,000 workers have received tenements promised to them.

Bhushan Samant, son of Datta Samant and the person who heads Kamgar Aghadi defends his father, and blames the then ruling Congress party for this state of affairs. “My father was reluctant to lead the mill workers but for four months, these workers regularly came to our office and pleaded with him,” he said. “It was a do or die battle. My father tried to meet the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to solve this tangle but the local Congressmen thwarted his efforts fearing he would emerge powerful and challenge them. My father collected 30 crore at that time and distributed to the agitating workers so that they can buy their ration. Which leader does so much? The strike is continuing and we will not call it off until every mill worker gets his rightful house.”

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Naresh is a Special Correspondent with Hindustan Times, Mumbai, since 2005. He covers the real estate sector, in addition to doing political reportage.

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