Lab | Log

Mumbai and the Mills: Part 1

Batliboy

The Batliboy Compound in Mumbai

Each of the Lab’s five mobile satellite locations represents an important part of Mumbai’s fabric and story in some way. But last week’s site—the former mill workers’ colony known as the Batliboy Compound—grabbed my interest right from the time I arrived in Mumbai, as it’s particularly salient to some of Mumbai’s greatest challenges: the massive impact and lasting consequences of deindustrialization.

Today, an estimated 90 percent of Mumbai’s population works in the “informal sector.” Much of this work takes place within the city’s slums, which house between 50 and 60 percent of the city’s population. And, while the complexity of the story in its entirety would require a book, not a small blog post, a large part of it can be understood by starting in the shadows of the crumbling smokestacks—like those dotting the Batliboy compound’s periphery—of Mumbai’s former mill district.

When you come from North America, you tend to associate the word “deindustrialization” with a hollowing-out of sorts—the outward sprawl to the suburbs and depopulation of city centers. But Mumbai has taught me that there is an even greater impact that deindustrialization can have on a city. When deindustrialization does not depopulate, but rather coincides with a time of growth, and is coupled with an enormous divide in educational opportunity, it means an exaggerated widening of rich and poor and the growth of the informal economy and development.

If Detroit was built on the automobile, Mumbai was built on cotton. Beginning in the mid nineteenth century and exploding when the Civil War halted American cotton production, the mill industry in Mumbai was once so large that it made up nearly three quarters of the city’s labor force. As journalist and activist Darryl D’Monte wrote in his book Ripping the Fabric: The Decline of Mumbai and its Mills, “The mills made Mumbai what it is—a modern, industrialized metropolis, just as the port enabled it to emerge as a trading centre earlier.”

But, like much of India, Mumbai began a slow process of deindustrialization in the 1980s. This rapidly accelerated with economic liberalization in 1991 when suddenly, despite having such an enormous internal domestic market, Indian textiles simply couldn’t compete with cheaper varieties coming from East Asian countries like Taiwan and Thailand. (This held true for the city’s other industries as well, like chemicals and pharmaceuticals, but the mills constituted the lion’s share of the city’s industry.) By the early 2000s, the textile industry that had once employed over a quarter million was feeding fewer than 50,000 of the ever-growing population.

Of course, this new industrial reality didn’t lead to overall economic decline. In the decades following liberalization, India’s economy has grown faster than any other in the world. But it did mean a distinct shift in economic distribution. It’s a well-known fact that much of this celebrated growth has been largely propelled by the service sector. While the percentage of GDP that manufacturing accounts for on the whole in the country has remained relatively stagnant, growth in the service sector has contributed a whopping 68.6 percent of the average growth in GDP between the years 2002–2003 and 2006–2007.

But it’s easy to forget that economic growth does not necessarily mean job growth. In India, organized sector employment in 1991 was 26.73 million; in 2003, despite massive population growth, it had only barely inched up to 27 million. Mumbai was no exception to either of those trends. Not only were there not nearly enough jobs to fill the gap that industry had left, but those jobs were primarily concentrated in finance and producer services and IT. It’s no wonder, then, that by the end of the 1990s the informal economy had already begun accounting for two thirds of the total jobs in the city.

“Land is being sold for service industries and IT, but let’s be clear, you cannot possibly re-train mill workers’ children to do that [type of work], because they’re not educated enough,” D’Monte told me in a recent interview. “Industry by its very nature has many more ancillary industries: the raw material, the finished goods. Here it is all computerized, and the logic of IT is that you have fewer and fewer people earning more and more, working longer hours,” he said.

Today, Mumbai’s unparalleled contradictions have become its namesake. As every newspaper, tourist, and local loves to point out, the fact that the city is home to both the world’s largest and most expensive single residence, and the country’s largest concentration of slums, aptly illustrates Mumbai’s gross economic disparity.

There is little question what role unchecked deindustrialization and the subsequent growth of the informal economy played in wedging that divide, and how it shaped the city. The years those mills were closing were in direct correlation with the rise of the slums that now all but define the city. While the city’s population grew by 20 percent in the decade of 1981 and 1991, the population of the slums increased by just over 2 percent, to encompass 23.5 percent of the city’s population. By 2001, just ten years later, that number had nearly doubled, rising to 54 percent.

It was hard not to have all this floating in the back of my mind last week at the Lab’s Batliboy site, filled with the community that has long called it home. Framed not only by a pair of dilapidated and crumbling mill sites, but also the intimate workers’ chawls familiar to Mumbaikers for over a century, and the imposing presence of the colossal, looming, still empty new residential towers of the Maharashtra Housing and Development Authority, it truly feels as if one is standing on the brink of the city’s past, its present, and the question mark of its future—trying valiantly to figure out just where to turn to find the answer.

Check back in the coming weeks for another piece on role of the mills in Mumbai’s economic history and its present-day economic reality.

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Photo: Christine McLaren