Made in usa. In the '70s and '80s, in the western parts of India, that label meant—or so the joke went—not Boston or Beverly Hills, but the Ulhasnagar Sindhi Association. The subtext was the alleged anything-goes Sindhi greed. Ulhasnagar, 60 km from Mumbai and with a huge Sindhi population, was supposed to be the hotbed of cheap counterfeit brands: from Wrangler jeans to Reebok shoes. In a way, to millions of people who never visited Ulhasnagar, the place was a joke, a catch-all moniker for spurious, substandard goods, goods that died on you within a week of purchase.
But that was the '80s, before economic reforms, before the brands Ulhasnagar Sindhis were supposed to be faking appeared legally on Indian shelves, before the craze for phoren things abated. When I visit Ulhasnagar in mid-December 2000, in the wake of a cholera epidemic, there's nothing remotely funny about the place. It's in fact another of those towns India forgot.
Post-Partition, about a lakh Sindhi refugees were settled in this former military camp. In 1949, the then governor general C. Rajagopalachari converted it into a township and named it Ulhasnagar after the adjoining river. Today it's India's largest enclave of this ethnic group. The cholera epidemic, however, laid bare the reality in this refugee settlement. While there's been one reported death, nearly 1,250 people tested positive for cholera. And it's clear why: exactly where the Ulhasnagar Municipal Commission lifts water for purification and chlorination is where the effluents from the thickly populated Dhobi Ghat and Khemani areas flow into the Ulhas river. The river is also host to chemical and other wastes of 100 power looms and steel cupboard units. Even if the water is chlorinated at source, it's no use as other pollutants get mixed with it at points where the pipes are broken, and most of them are—they date back to World War II.
There isn't a single municipal hospital here. Cited as a severe case of urban disaster, Ulhasnagar is a maze of narrow roads where motorists, autorickshaws, pigs and cows jostle for space. A Lions' Club hoarding asks people to "Love City-Keep Clean", but unattended garbage mounds abound while open gutters flow everywhere. A World Bank-financed underground sewerage project was supposed to have taken off more than a decade ago, but never did. Over 95 per cent of the construction is unauthorised. In 1949, a Master Plan was drawn up, which was replaced by another plan in 1974. But neither fructified. As the population exploded, every Sindhi worth his salt became a builder and unauthorised buildings mushroomed. But aesthetics don't worry anyone. Garish architecture rubs shoulders with barracks and low-roofed manufacturing units. All five 'camps', as they were called earlier, have a mix of industry and residential blocks—a Sindhi's work, goes the cliche, is never separate from his personal life.
The only authorised structures are the barracks deserted by the Allied Forces and allotted to refugees. Since then, population has grown tenfold. People were assured of more land, but that promise too was retracted, apparently after the locals resented losing their cultural identity if their land was opened to Sindhis. So the denizens built rooms around or above the barracks. "We Sindhis are so involved in making money, we don't want to waste time in taking the so-called proper channel," explains a smiling Mahesh Bhatija, who deals in wholesale readymade garments."We prefer to pay a little more but get the work done without a hassle."
Result: there are virtually no parks, maidans or public places. "We've no good schools," says the soft-spoken Narang Jaipal, father of two and a successful businessman who runs accountancy classes and an niit franchise. His children study in Ambernath and Kalyan, travelling over 10 km everyday. There are no local buses either. Instead, 4,000 rickshaws ply when only a fourth of that are authorised. The Sindhis have almost never pressed the authorities to provide any amenities. Narang explains that they are docile in such matters. Also, they are too preoccupied with commerce to demand their rights or enter politics. The best-known local Sindhi mla is Pappu Kalani who has been in jail for the last seven years.
Though most Sindhi businesses are small-scale, the estimated 10,000 units here have a turnover of about Rs 5,000 crore. Every family has a business. Even if the men have jobs in far-off Mumbai, they typically run a printing press or deal in garments in the evenings. An average Sindhi will, on his way back from office, visit clients and take orders for his side-business which he'll honour probably early in the morning before reporting for work. The Rs 20-crore papad industry involves 12-hour workdays for widows and older women of over 500 families. At Camp 5, we meet owners of readymade garment units. Bhatija is a graduate who started his unit 15 years back after working as a tailor. No job for the Sindhi is too modest as long as it's commercially rewarding. And there is very little apparent discrepancy between people of different trades. Bhatija tells us the readymade industry has a turnover of about Rs 32 crore. Ulhasnagar has about 4,000-5,000 such units—most are in Camp 5.
But the hallmark of Ulhasnagar is the total absence of any rules. A passer-by tells us to take a U-turn on a one-way to avoid the bother of going till the next turning. "Yahan pe chalta hai (Anything goes here)," he advises us. Monetary success is the only yardstick. Yet, money hasn't got the locals cleaner air or better infrastructure, but it doesn't seem to bother them. Over the past 20 years, Maharashtrians and south Indians have come here in search of jobs and now account for half of the nine-lakh population. Kanhaiyalal Thakur, 71, is angry about how Sindhis who came here were treated no better than they'd have been in Pakistan. He blames the mlas of his time for letting other people in when this area was demarcated for the community. He echoes popular sentiment that there is discrimination against Sindhis by the local police and administration. "If a Sindhi puts up an illegal structure, it's pulled down immediately," he says, "but not so for others." The Sindhis got little support to stand on their feet, feel residents. But thanks to their indomitable spirit, they survived and thrived. They sold knick-knacks on local trains and Mumbai streets; set up cottage industries for confectionery, papad, pickles, readymades while others serviced the industry in Mumbai.
"The Sindhi values his izzat (honour) a lot and is generous, respects all religions and is peace loving," says Thakur, "and that's why we've been exploited." I meet him outside the Jhulelal Mandir where he sits with a bunch of retirees who spend their evenings together. Owners of shops nearby relate how trucks come with free food for the poor and most of this is gupt daan or anonymous charity. But they point out that there is rarely a Sindhi beggar waiting for free food because every Sindhi will set up some tiny business and work his way up. If only he would also pay some attention to his environs in the process.