Mills And Boom: Mumbai’s Social Fabric And The Ubiquitous Chawls

A history of Bombay, from John Company in the 18th century to the real estate mafia of the 21st, with pitstop at the chawls that have defined Mumbai's working class past

Mills And Boom: Mumbai’s Social Fabric And The Ubiquitous Chawls

If Mumbai were a coin, hope and despair would be its two faces. As thousands of workers from the bar­­ren, jobless heartland of India migrate towards the metropolis in new hope of employment and bettering their lives, very few seem to have noticed a steady tri­ckle of the few hundreds, who are migrating from the city’s populous pockets.

Families of mill workers, some of whom have worked across generations in the city’s once-flourishing textile industry from the 19th century, have no place in the city which their forefathers shouldered to glory. Mum­bai’s redevelopment, which has transformed scores of soot-lined mill compounds in the city’s southern and central pockets to temples of consumerism and bling, has triggered alarm bells for more than a lakh families of former mill workers.

According to Praveen Ghag, president of the Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti, a state government plan to provide compensatory housing to mill workers’ famil­ies, who are being displaced by the redevelopment, has fallen short of promises thus far. Around 1.75 lakh-odd applications were received from mill workers’ families for compensatory housing, but only 18,000 homes have been allotted by the government so far. “Several chief ministers have given the Samiti assurances, but regime changes tend to bring their negotiations back to square one,” he says.

In Mumbai, post industrialisation, families of former textile workers are being expunged from the city, who­se mills have turned into shining oases of entertainm­ent, leisure and commercial rentals. They simply can­’t afford a place called home in Mumbai, the city whose guardians claim is being transformed into a Singapore or a Shanghai.

With John as company

In 1854, an enterprising Parsi businessman, Cowasji Nan­a­bhoy, and Englishman Edwin Heycock lent ample girth to Bombay’s capitalist ambition. They set up the Bombay Spinning and Weaving Company in South Bombay’s Tar­deo. Back then, primarily Koli fisherfolk walked and sailed the seven isles, casting their nets to fish.

But for more than a century after Nanabhoy’s enterp­rise, it was the textile industry which cast a web of dre­ams over the city. Lure of steady wages from the sale and export of spun cotton, attracted villagers in the Kon­kan and Marathwada belt first and later from other parts of India, as the city attracted wave after wave of immigrants, who would spend their lives as mill workers. In many cases, their subsequent generations would too. By 1892, mill workers accounted for nearly 10 per cent of Bombay’s population.

There were 200 textile mills in the city by the early 1900s. The hungry mills, like large smoking dragons across Bombay’s skyline, would consume labour, just as easily it could consume bales of cotton.

But the mass migration to Bom­bay also gave rise to a new chain of urban dynamics. Housing for mill workers, sanitation facilities for the vast incoming population, schools for their children, medical aid, and urgent addressal. Communal riots were also reported in the city in 1893. Unhygienic living conditions led to the plague of 1896, claiming 20,000 victims.

Present tense An under-construction highrise peeks over a chawl cluster in Bhendi Bazaar. Photo: Dinesh Parab

Advent of chawls

In response, the city set up the Bom­bay City Improvement Trust in partnership with mill owners and came up with a solution to tackle the housing and sanitation crisis. Chawls were their answer.

Chawls were essentially small, one- or two-room tenements with a connecting passage built over several floors. A typical room in a chawl is roughly spread over 100 to 200 sq. ft, with a common set of toilets on each floor. The housing was low-cost and could host a large workforce.

Since most of the mills were located in south and central Bom­bay, chawls sprung up in areas like Girgaum, Tardeo, Byc­u­­lla, Parel, etc. Bombay’s early chawls were constructed by mill owners in close proximity to the mill itself. By 1911, nearly 70 per cent of the city’s population lived in chawls or one-room tenements, according to official figures. Mill workers would trudge to and from their chawls on cue from a siren blast which announced the beginning and end of every work shift.

A chawl, especially rooms along one floor of a chawl, were like one large joint family cluster, whose members did not share the same DNA. Shakuntalabai Dhabekar, who is in her mid-seventies has had to learn a new language, Hindi, to settle into her new neighbourhood in Virar, a far-flung suburb. Her parents lived in a mill colony in Girgaum. Her father had migrated from western Maharashtra to work in a textile mill in Bombay. She married a mill worker and moved to Parel, a half-an-hour journey from her maternal home.

Now she has to move again because her chawl came under the redevelopment hammer. The developer offered her family Rs 25 lakh as a one-time compensation. The Dha­bekar’s were left with no option but to move to Virar where accommodation was cheaper. From the city’s heart, the family moved to its far-off limb and bought a 225-square-feet house. Shakun­t­a­la­bai misses the famed kinship fostered by semi-­collective living in her chawl. She had her neighbours to share their homes, food, worries, tears, happiness and festivities. Everyone ope­ned their hearts, purses and hom­es for engagements, weddings, children’s birthdays, death rituals, etc. Since Shakuntalabai’s new neighbo­urhood comprises largely of a wor­king population, many of the doors remain shut through the day. “I do not know what to do. I want to go back to the chawl. It is very lonely here,” she tells Outlook.


A chawl, and especially rooms along one floor of a chawl, were like one large joint family cluster, whose members did not share the same DNA.

Bombay’s chawls have seen generations spa­w­ned and reared and have also inspired films, TV serials and sub-genre of both existential as well as comic literature. It was this mass working population, packed in small spaces, which was also tap­ped by Lokmanya Tilak to defy a British administration ban on public assembly by organising a public celebration of Gan­esh Chaturthi at the Keshavji Naik chawl near Charni Road, in 1893. Chawls have also served as a chaotic, yet nostalgic backdrop for several commercial and art films like Katha, Black Friday, Vaastav and Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman.


The Dagdi chawl in Byculla is home to Arun Gawli, once a feared underworld don. The old housing structure, home to around 300 residents, is on the verge of being redeveloped, with two 40-storey skyscrapers likely to replace the chawl cluster, from where Gawli ran his writ through the ’80s to ’90s.

Strikes begin

Increased industrialisation also led to social inequity, and the numerically superior textile mill workers were at the for­efront of the struggle for better working conditions in the growing city. As a result, Mumbai’s textile sector witne­s­sed its first major strike in 1928-29, which lasted five mon­ths. From 1928 to 1938, the city witnessed an estimated 460 strikes, very few of which were successful.


By 1970-80s, there was a growing unease in the textile industry, as big players used technology to edge out competition, switching from han­­dlooms to power-looms, which required a lesser workforce. The roots of the 1982 mill wor­­kers strike, which was to change Bombay forever, was a workers’ demand for 20 per cent bonus from Standard Mills.

One could smell the clash coming in renowned Mumbai poet late Narayan Surve’s poetry. His poem, Char Shabd (A Beginning), translated by a Mumbai-based collective, positioned a struggle where a swashbuckling worker would emerge as the hero.

The struggle for the daily bread is an everyday question
At times outside the gate, at times inside
I’m a worker, a flaming sword
Listen, you intellectuals! I’m going to commit a crime...


I haven’t arrived alone; the epoch’s with me
Beware; this is the beginning of the storm
I’m a worker, a shining sword
Listen, you intellectuals! A crime’s about to happen.

Datta Samant steps in

The man destined to wield the shining sword and lead text­ile workers from the front was Datta Samant, a qualified doctor originally from Ratnagiri. His patients were mill wor­kers, through whom he understood the pulse of the city. Affiliated to the Congress-based Indian Nati­o­nal Trade Uni­on Congress, he had already successfully negot­i­ated better deals for workers from manage­ment in the pharmaceutical, electronics and engineering sectors.

Samant’s call for a strike on January 18, 1982 was supported by nearly 2.5 million mill workers. The demands included wage increase, permanent employment status for (badli) casual workers and better leave structure, among others. With agitating workers on the city’s streets, Bombay fell as silent as its mills.


Ghag and other workers, who once fought for better pay and working conditions, are now involved in a new fight—the right to housing, in a city with little space.

The stand-off between the union leader and workers and the city establishment and mill owners, drew a mem­orable quote from Maratha political str­o­ngman Sharad Pawar, then in the Congress. “If Datta Samant wins, then it will be Waterloo for the industrialists of Bombay, and if the mill owners win, then it will be the Waterloo for Dr. Samant,” he told New York Times in 1982.

Ghag, a former Swan Mills employee and Samant’s close associate, has a theory for the seemingly never-ending stand-off, which eventually dealt a crippling blow to the mill wor­kers, owners, the city which nurtured both, and Samant himself. “…The government was not keen on it. There was a reason. If Datta Samant had succeeded in the battle for the rights of mill workers, he would have been in a position to take on the sugar lobby next,” says Ghag.


City sights A factory chimney stands against the backdrop of highrise apartment buildings. Photo: Dinesh Parab

In the mid- to late-20th century, the sugar industry was to western Maharashtra what the textile industry was, in the late-19th and early-20th century. A powerful entity, which brooked no stopping. Initially, neither side blin­k­ed. But as the strike dragged on for six months and left them without wages, the workers panicked and blinked. “After six months, the question of livelihood arose. We had no mon­ey. How much could Datta Samant do? The­re was a time during the strike when Samant wan­ted to accept the offer of Rs 75 increase in wages, agai­nst the demand for a minimum Rs 250 raise,” Ghag claims, adding that some unions dissuaded him from doing so.


The strike failed. So did the hopes of around 75,000 workers who lost their jobs. Many mills shut down during the period. The ghost of the failure of one of the largest strikes in the country, continues to hang over the city.

Redevelopment woes

Ghag and thousands of mill workers, who fought for better pay and work conditions are now involved in another struggle. The right to housing, in a city with little space. The chawls are being knocked down one after the other, under controversial city redevelopment schemes. And the story of every demolished cha­wls begins with a dream of money and new housing sold by the government, with a real estate company in tow.


For 88-year-old Pandharinath Sawant, an independent writer, redevelopment is not a welcome word. He has lived in the Digvijay Mills Patra Chawl in Lalbaug since he was eight years old. Sawant tells Outlook that he would rather die in his 225-sq ft home than move out of the area. “This is my home. They take away our hom­es under the guise of redevelopment and once we move out, they will build a highrise here. Develop­m­ent has not been kind to the Mar­athi manoos, it has taken away our homes,” Sawant tells Outl­ook. Arvind Sawant, the south Mumbai MP says, that “affordability and expansion of the family are the main factors for this…For sons-of-the-soil, the new housing is beyond their means. That’s the reason for them moving to the suburban areas of Mumbai, Thane, Dom­bivli, Badla­pur, etc.”  Another plan to redevelop Dharavi slums into a world class business centre with high-rise residential colonies appears to have hit rough waters for now, along with several other projects.


The end of Datta Samant

And what finally happened to Datta Samant? Samant went on to win the 1984 elections from Bombay South-Central as an independent candidate. But in one of his last interviews, he said he sometimes felt that his life was a failure. “You see… the problem with workers in our country is that they are selfish. They are only concernedwith their family. They are not interested in spreading the movement. I tell all my workers to spread the movement. But they are only interested in making more money, drinking all night, and enjoying themselves. So how then, do you expect change in this country? India has no future. Some­times I feel that my life is a failure,” Samant was quoted as saying.


Thirteen years later, he was shot dead in broad daylight by gunmen. The police pointed fingers at underworld don Chhota Rajan.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Mills and Boom")

Haima Deshpande & Mayabhushan Nagvenkar