Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
CITIES: AUGUST 12, 2001
Once upon a time, the tall brick chimneys of Central Mumbai announced the city's industrial heart. Today the chimneys evoke only memories; in their shadows lurk the ghosts of a past not so distant. Yet, already, it is being forgotten.
K. Ramesh Babu
For among the skeletal remains of the once vibrant mill district of Mumbai you find today sleaze, crime and yuppie entertainment. And the plush offices of businesses that sell other images, not those of Mumbai's past.
But does the virtual death of "Girangaon," where once 54 textile mills spun yarn and wove cloth; where a work force from nearby Konkan and distant Uttar Pradesh worked side by side, where the mill maliks ranged from generous to exploitative, mean that Mumbai is not an "industrial" city any more? Has the heart that pumped life into the city died - or has it morphed into something else?
Superficially, you might conclude that Mumbai's industrial heart is dead. In the island-city, old industries like the mills have disappeared and new ones are not permitted to take their place. All new industries are now relegated to the distant suburbs, where a new, much larger urban agglomeration has emerged.
But even in the heartland of Mumbai, in the island-city, "industry" and enterprise have not died altogether; they have simply taken on a different avatar. And they tend to hide in the jungle of slums that seem to occupy a major part of the city. In fact, they cover less than six per cent of the city's area. But in them live over half of Mumbai's citizens, an estimated six million people.
The visual images that the slums in Mumbai conjure up are of dilapidated structures, some of brick and mortar, others of tin and tarpaulin. Of dirt and disease. Of disorder, transience and of despair.
There is all this. But there is also another side, one not visible to the casual visitor. For what happens in these hovels is the fuel that runs the city's economy. The people who live in these broken-down shelters underwrite the city's efficiency. Without them, people would not be able to keep their houses clean, get a hot meal in the middle of the day, buy affordable food in any part of the city, find vegetables and fruits at convenient locations, find cheaper, yet reliable, alternatives for all the famous brand names sold in the Indian market.
In every nook and corner of the majority of Mumbai's slums there is "industry." The lane between rows of houses, the tiny lofts, any open space between structures, even disused toilet blocks are locations of tiny manufacturing centres, producing readymade clothes, food stuffs, leather bags, suitcases, jewellery, soap, just about anything.
Surabhi Sharma's recent film "Jari Mari and Other Tales of Cloth" captures most vividly these islands of intense enterprise. The location of her film is a slum that hugs the runway of Mumbai airport. For over three decades people have lived there, their daily lives punctuated by landings and take-offs. But the inhabitants of Jari Mari have not taken off. They cling precariously to their uncertain territory, waiting for a day when the bulldozers will move in and flatten more than three decades of toil and savings. But this uncertain existence has not dampened their enterprise. Jari Mari resounds day and night with the sound of sewing machines and other instruments that produce all manner of goods.
Dharavi, a few kilometres south, is Jari Mari on a much larger scale. Here there are large organised units, some employing more than 20 workers. They process leather, make finished leather goods, produce ready-made garments for the export market and for domestic sale. In one factory, workers from different parts of India make the special sweet from their region. These are then packed and despatched to places where a Dharavi cannot even be imagined.
And the women? Their hands are not still for a moment. When they are not filling water, or cleaning and cooking, they are busy working with their hands - embroidery, making rakhis, making paper bags. Others go and work in the recycling district sorting out plastic.
But while this informal industry might provide colour and interest to writers and photographers, it represents a drastic decline of livelihood choices for the millions of poor people who have made Mumbai their home. By its very nature, the informal sector breeds insecurity. It survives because it can work with the smallest of margins. This means that workers get paid less than the minimum wage. But they are in no position to question or argue. There are no unions. And there are hundreds waiting to take up these jobs at even lower salaries. So workers, drawn from many parts of India, toil silently in these sweatshops, and wait for their chance to move on to something better.
In the past, that "something better" would have been a secure job in the organised sector. Today, no such option exists. On the contrary, the organised sector is diligently shedding its work force, forcing these men to turn to the informal sector.
And this in turn is leading to a cascade effect, as each wave of workers displaced by the organised sector, displaces workers in the informal sector.
The entry of more workers also pushes down wages even lower than they already are. A labour surplus market is a dream for the entrepreneur in the unorganised sector. And a nightmare for the workers looking for a living wage.
Yet, even this cannot last as the city's focus shifts from manufacturing to the service sector. Mumbai-based architect Arvind Adarkar predicts that 50 to 60 lakh workers in the city will be pushed from the industrial to the self-employed sector in the next few years. Until 1971, just under half the city's workforce was engaged in manufacturing. By 1990, this had declined to a little over 28 per cent.
So, what of the future? The chimneys of Girangaon at least survived to tell their tale. One wonders what symbols will remain from this vanishing, and virtually invisible informal sector, that has sustained so many lives.
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