Deepak Cinema is a landmark—a bus stop, once a popular cinema, a pointer for corporate newbies looking for offices in Kamala Mills. Now, Indiabulls and its towers are the overarching landmarks across the road. Deepak Cinema also dons a new avatar. Under Matterden CFC, the theatre screens Hollywood classics, apart from the usual Bollywood and Marathi fare. Old and new cohabit with perfect synchronicity—the old architecture, the new cafe; the old feel and the new amenities.
Yet, just around this, in Girangaon, or the mill district, the two are locked in a mighty tussle. There is contrast, conflict and compromise. The new eateries wear a desperately come-hither glitz. The mills, which were once thriving, then closed and desolate, and now brimming again with a new floating population, do the same. After its make-over in the past decade, the area hosts swanky corporate offices, plush hotels and high-end malls. It also has the distinctive low-rise, ramshackle tenement buildings that have housed mill workers and their families for nearly a century. And all of this wrapped by the dusty, brown exterior of the textile mills. The transformation in the interior occurred after the mill lands were freed up for construction—residential and commercial—through a Supreme Court decision in 2005.
And something like this might happen in more pockets of Mumbai, its suburbs and even the adjoining Thane-Navi Mumbai area. Recent policy decisions by the state government—it announced that industrial plots will be opened up for housing—will hugely impact the real estate industry and Mumbai’s housing. Also, housing is now included in the list of essentials, which means the government will be duty bound to provide housing for the poor. It has also announced that 50 per cent of the low-cost housing constructed by the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) will be made available for mill workers. The latest allotments will take the figure from an existing 11,000 to 17,000 apartments (the demand is for 1,48,000 apartments). Naturally, these may not be in the mill district of central Mumbai, where many families have spent three generations.
Mumbai’s mill district was transformed when land was freed for construction in 2005. Now, more land may be opened up.
Kohinoor Chawl, built in 1920 for mill workers, has 996 rooms of 140 sq.ft. each. Even now, most residents’ families hark back to a mill connection. Janardan is a rare contemporary mill worker, with a job at the Tata mills, a unit still operational. In their one-room house, with a mezzanine bed, shared by a family of five and a Labrador, they recall the olden times. Rows of two-storeyed buildings form part of this Kohinoor Mill Compound, where the first Dahi Handi festival was started. “If we start talking about those times, there is no end to the conversation,” says Janardan, who was born and brought up here.
The complex of textile mills, first set up in the 19th century and mostly owned by Parsis and Gujaratis, was an inherent part of the cosmopolitan financial hub that is Mumbai. Over the years, more than 100 mills were set up, employing around 2 lakh people. Workers lived in nearby chawls, which became important socio-cultural spaces over the years, meriting studies of architecture, politics and daily lives. The historic, year-long textile mill strike in 1982, led by Datta Samant, changed everything.
Workers and their families talk about the 1970s with nostalgia and the 1980s with sorrow. “Our lives revolved around the siren of the mills. Rarely did anyone look at the clocks,” says Sugandha Lonikar, whose father worked at Dawn Mills in Parel. “A vegetable market was set up along the route taken by the workers. They would walk back, bringing vegetables. Everything—schools, hospitals, playgrounds—was within 15-20 minutes on foot.”
Rafique Baghdadi, a film historian and an avid observer of urban development, talks about the khanavalis (cheap, home-cooked food joints), usually run for migrant male workers, and the varied cultural nuggets such workers brought with them. “It was not just about work. The chawls were culturally vibrant. Apart from festivals, there was music and food. Also, Communist unions contributed to the cultural landscape....”
Playwright Sunil Shanbaug remembers how lively the area was. “I used to take a bus from south Mumbai to Santa Cruz that went through the mill district...it was always lively, with people on the road—chawls, mills, workers finishing one shift, starting the other....”
As lives swirled around the mills, other businesses emerged—most famously, the Dabbawalas, another Mumbai symbol. Apart from their on-the-dot precision, which later fetched them international acclaim, among the mill-workers fraternity, they were known for their honesty too. “Workers would often send their salaries in cash, in the lunchbox. That was considered safer than carrying it in wallets,” remembers Lonikar.
A portion of the mill district in central Mumbai
However, many children who grew up in the depressing post-strike years (when the mills were closed down), went to night schools and did day jobs. “Some excelled, but many were left behind and got lost.” Organised crime increased, recruiting the unemployed—depicted in films like Dagadi Chawl, Vaastav and Lalbaug Parel. Even now, in this age of hyper-development, the number of unemployed is unnerving. The new swankiness only offers them jobs as security, salesmen and waiting staff. “Our children are neither educated enough to qualify for corporate jobs, nor can they survive with what is available. Girls do not agree to marry them.... You might think they dance like crazy on the roads, but they are just taking out their frustration,” says Janardan.
At the office of Girni Kaamgar Sangharsh Samiti, workers, mostly 50-65 years old, gather to discuss issues, housing being the priority. They are worried, for if the mill strike was a decisive moment in the 1980s, the Bombay High Court and Supreme Court decisions about the sale of mill lands became a turning point of these times.
In the ’80s-’90s, when mill operations were shifted out of the city, some mill buildings would catch fire, some locked down, some again wouldn’t take workers back, as successive governments plumped for that all-consuming mantra of the noughties—‘development’. With some cosmetic regulations, redevelopment began at a steady pace in the mill areas. High Street Phoenix mall, residential highrises and the service industry moved in. Says Ashutosh Limaye, national director, research, JLL India, “In the mill district, since 2005, 10 million sq feet of Grade A office space is built; prior to it only two million sq ft of such space existed.... In terms of residential developments, mill district has seen the launch of 19,500 units spread over 140 projects since 2005.” The rapid growth is not without consequences—narrow roads meant for pedestrians are clogged with vehicles, while water-logging during the monsoon is a routine affair.
The boom years’ building spree hit a slump. But the central Mumbai skyline is dotted with ongoing, incomplete constructions.
The fact that, of the 25 tallest buildings listed in Mumbai on Wikipedia, 20 are from the mill district, and none from erstwhile south Mumbai, says something. “Residential price index, with Dec 2005 as base (=100), moved up to 270 in Dec 2008, fell a bit to 210 in 2009 and climbed to 400 in 2013 and stands at 460 today. Currently, prices here are between Rs 30,000 per sq ft and Rs 40,000 per sq ft in general,” says Limaye.
Still, the development planned during the economic boom has not unfolded as expected. Take Kohinoor Square, built on the land of Kohinoor Mills. Bought originally by Raj Thackeray and Manohar Joshi, it has been mired in problems. Despite advertising for residential and commercial spaces for several years, the structure is neither sold out, nor ready to function. “We have almost completed the commercial building. Parking issues have been resolved. 30 per cent sales have taken place; the product is excellent. The slump will not affect us, because not much inventory is left. Though transactions are not happening for sales, there’s demand for lease. It’s a golden opportunity,” says an optimistic Bharat Ishi of the Kohinoor Group.
However, despite the real estate slump, the skyline around central Mumbai is dotted with incomplete, ongoing, massive constructions by top developers. Most of the original migrants/locals are mute spectators to the stubborn razing and rebuilding.
As far as numbers of houses for the low-income group are concerned, out of the aforementioned 1.48 lakh applications, 9,500 have actualy been handed over. Even if space is taken from all the mills, not more than 30,000 flats will be made. Referring to the latest policy announcement of opening up of industrial land in and around Mumbai for housing, Limaye says, “Opening up of infrastructure-ready land is better because it will have water, roads and electricity. It is an enabler, but the government will have to decide how much to allocate for LIG, MIG and HIG; the location will matter. Not all industries, say on the Thane-Belapur road, will convert—so can residential and industrial co-exist? If the spirit of the decision is for the EWS, affordable housing will receive a big push.”
Datta Iswalkar, of the Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti, has his doubts. “They have not specified how much of this will go to the poor, let alone mill workers. Even regarding the announcement of 50 per cent of low-cost housing going to mill workers (many of them retrenched and retired), it is a continuation of previous policy. When will they hand over? How can they say there will be over 20,000 flats? We are yet to see a policy that actually takes all mill workers into consideration. We know it is impossible to accommodate in central Mumbai, but at least somewhere....”
Ultimately, every stakeholder accepts that change is inevitable. “In Detroit, a hub of industrial activity, the same happened. In globalisation, there is no space for the poor,” says Baghdadi. “Of course, we will have to go, but will we get a roof over our heads somewhere?” asks a mill district resident. If the future bears inevitable signs of the past, can the past claim its share from the future too?
By Prachi Pinglay-Plumber in Mumbai