New Internationalist

Powerloom prison

Issue 399

Can ‘going organic’ save India’s besieged cotton farmers? Not on its own, argues Richard Swift, as he sorts through the evidence.

Dionne Bunsha
‘All the livelong day!’: Bhiwandi workers put in long hours at unregulated workplaces. Dionne Bunsha

Tall stone chimneys towering above glass skyscrapers are the only reminders of the textile mills that spurred Mumbai’s growth as India’s commercial capital. Today, malls and corporate offices have replaced the mills. Workers have made way for yuppies. And condos have been built adjoining the chawls (tenement houses) where workers once lived. Parel, in central Mumbai, was once a crowded working-class neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city. It is now one of the city’s hottest real-estate locations. The chimneys that rise high above the skyscrapers are the tombstones, the last remnants of Parel’s industrial past.

Mumbai was once India’s largest textile centre, but now not a single mill operates here. What happened to the city’s 250,000 workers? ‘Most can’t find work and have moved back to their village. Some are working in temporary jobs as taxi drivers or security guards,’ says Datta Ishwalkar from the Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti (Mill Workers’ Struggle Association). As work shifted from the composite mills in Mumbai to powerloom sweatshops in Bhiwandi and other smaller centres, so did some workers. The composite mills were large, regulated and mostly unionized workplaces where there were machines to spin the yarn, weave it into cloth on looms and then process it. All processes took place in one location. In Bhiwandi, the yarn is bought and spun into cloth, and then sent for processing elsewhere. There is no regulation, taxes and duties are avoided, labour is much cheaper and conditions are medieval. Cotton farmers aren’t the only ones living in poverty. Powerloom workers and handloom weavers are barely managing to survive. Dire deprivation extends right down the cotton chain.

Sharad Panda moved to Bhiwandi when the composite mill he worked at in Mumbai shut up shop. He earned a lot more five years ago in Mumbai than he earns now. ‘In Mumbai, I got 4,500 rupees ($95.74) per month to work two looms for eight hours, plus a bonus of 8,000 rupees ($170.21) and leave. Here, I work four looms and earn 3,000 rupees ($63.83), with no security or leave,’ says Sharad. ‘It’s not enough to support my family. The owners don’t pay wages on time. Sometimes I have to borrow to make ends meet. I can’t save anything to send my parents in the village. I could support them when I worked in the mill.’

In the late 19th century, Bhiwandi developed as a textile producing centre. ‘After the 1857 revolt, several weavers in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, who had fought the British unarmed, were repressed. They fled south, and some settled in Bhiwandi,’ says Baliram Chaudhry, secretary of the General Workers Union (Red Flag). ‘Later, as it developed into a handloom centre, traditional weavers from Andhra Pradesh in the south were attracted to the town. With mechanization, powerlooms were introduced.’

Bhiwandi and other textile producing towns expanded when Mumbai’s mills shut down in the 1980s. ‘In a decade, the number of looms rose from 100,000 to 500,000. The production cost for powerlooms is four times less than the mills. Labour costs (for weaving per unit) were much higher in a composite mill,’ says Ramesh Gosrani, a powerloom owner. Moreover, overhead costs are cheaper since only 25 per cent of the looms are licensed, says Chaudhry. Power is either stolen or paid for at domestic, not industrial rates.

Avoiding regulation

Most powerlooms are housed in tiny, crammed workshops and evade the Factory Act and other labour laws. ‘It’s very difficult to pinpoint who is the owner. The room is rented out by one person, the loom is owned by another, the raw material is bought by a third party and the person contracting the workers could manage several small units,’ says Chaudhry. Bhiwandi’s powerloom sector profits from this chaos in the unorganized sector. ‘It’s very difficult for us to unionize. Workers only come to us when they are sacked. In the 35 years that the minimum wage for powerlooms has been declared, it has never been adhered to, though it isn’t even a survival wage,’ says Chaudhry.

Since Bhiwandi is a migrant town with a floating population, its local government is far less accountable and gets away with negligence. Workers live in shockingly unhygienic, crammed conditions. Some even live where they work. Many aren’t voters and work too hard to have the time to demand basic facilities like water or sanitation. Diseases are rampant. ‘Breathing in the lint makes around 80 per cent suffer from tuberculosis. The dirty living conditions, with no proper toilets and open drains, make workers even more vulnerable to several other diseases, like malaria or cholera,’ says Jalil Ansari, a political activist.

‘Besides paying for rent and food, we even have to pay 50 rupees per month to buy water and 1 rupee every time we visit the toilet. At the end of the month, I have nothing to send home to my ageing mother. She still has to work in the fields,’ says Chandeshwar Mandal, a migrant from the eastern state of Bihar.

Cloth sells for 50 to 100 rupees ($1.06 to $2.12) per metre, depending on the quality. But powerloom workers get only 1.30 rupees ($0.03) for every metre they produce. Workers like Sharad Panda labour to produce more than 100 metres of cloth every day, but he can barely afford to buy clothes for his family. The only occasion they get new clothes is Diwali, the festival of lights.

Through Sharad’s life one can trace the course of India’s textile industry from an organized industry to one that has outsourced. In his book, Ripping the Fabric: The Decline of Mumbai and its Mills, Darryl D’Monte quotes India’s most respected industrialist, the late JRD Tata, as saying that the reason for the deterioration of the composite mills in Mumbai was government policy promoting the decentralized sector. But many of India’s top industrial houses, which built their empires with textile plants, actually supported the growth of the unorganized sector. An 18-month strike of mill workers was beaten back in 1982-83. After that, around 51,000 workers were dismissed. It also gave the owners the opportunity to outsource work and to claim bankruptcy.

‘Mills did not go into the red because of the strike. It just gave mill owners the perfect excuse to wind up several departments and stop running the factory effectively. The mill owners lobbied with the Government to frame policies that favoured the powerlooms and those which would enable them to sell the land, which was leased to them by the Government solely for industrial purposes,’ says Datta Ishwalkar. ‘These brands, like Mafatlal and Bombay Dyeing, are still selling cloth, even though their mills are shut. They outsource the work to powerlooms in Bhiwandi and other towns and then stamp their label on it. It saves on labour costs. And they made a fortune on the sprawling real estate that the mills occupied.’

That land is now the face of ‘Shining India’, considered an emerging global economy. There’s a story behind every new highrise. Land development reeks of illegalities, corruption and mafia intervention. The Government allowed the sale of mill land on the condition that the proceeds should be used to modernize the textile plants. ‘None of the mills were ever upgraded. They were deliberately made bankrupt and closed. And no government has questioned the numerous scams,’ says Ishwalkar. For instance, one of the first new structures to replace a mill was Mumbai’s first bowling alley and bar, in Phoenix Mill. It was sanctioned as a ‘cultural centre for workers’ in government records. Now it’s a huge mall with nightclubs, designer stores and even a Marks and Spencer.

The textile industry is by no means dying. It is still India’s single largest industry, comprising a fifth of the country’s industrial production. After agriculture, this sector employs the highest number of people – 21 million. But the working conditions have deteriorated with the outsourcing of production to the powerlooms.

Sharad Panda left his village in search of a better life in Mumbai. Today he is holed up in a filthy industrial town, worked to the bone and yet penniless at the end of the month. His dreams were buried with the death of the mills. All that remains are the tombstone chimneys that loom over Mumbai’s skyline. •

  1. Dionne Bunsha is a regular New Internationalist contributor, based in Mumbai.

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