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Mumbai and the Mills: Part 2

Datta Iswalker

Datta Iswalker

Last week, we explored the role of the mills in Mumbai’s economic history and its present-day economic reality. This week, Christine delves further into the issue with one of the key players working for the rights of dispossessed millworkers.

If there’s one person who truly understands the social impact of Mumbai’s deindustrialization, it’s Datta Iswalker. Since the 1980s, he has been leading the fight to mitigate the social damages caused by the death of Mumbai’s mill industry. Iswalker’s organization, Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti—the Mill Workers Action Committee, originally titled the Band Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti (Closed Mill Workers Action Committee)—was founded in 1989. Its original goal was to revive the sputtering industry; eventually deeming this a losing battle, it later turned its focus to acquiring just compensation for the city’s thousands of out-of-work mill workers.

I met Iswalker, somewhat unexpectedly, while passing through his office on my way to a different meeting. As often happens in Mumbai, my intended meeting never materialized, which gave me the happy coincidental chance to corner Iswalker and pick his brain for his perspective on the current state of affairs for Mumbai’s former millworkers on the ground. Has the shift to more informal economies been as drastic as it sounds from the statistics? How is it affecting their lives? Where do things go from here? These are a few of the questions I told him I had. He accepted the impromptu interview graciously and, through my friend and colleague Swati Abhijit’s indirect translations, gave me a candid narration of things as he sees them.

First, said Iswalker, it’s important to note that the Mumbai millworker story is not as tragic as it was often made out to be. By nature, he said, millworkers were incredibly hardworking, frugal, and adaptive. Often villagers from a farming background who were sending much of the incomes back to their families, they were resilient, and found creative ways to sustain themselves in the city after the mill closures on top of their compensation packages, which varied greatly in size. Many were already close to retirement anyway, and were able to survive on their retirement savings and mill closure compensations.

One of the most direct impacts the shift had on the workers themselves, he said, was a shift in social status. There was a time where mill work was seen as dignified labor. Families would wish for their daughters to marry mill workers, as the job came with status and security. The shift back to farm work, or to informal work in the city, was often seen as a step down—a difficult cross to bear in a society steeped in social hierarchy.

The burden weighs much heavier on the shoulders of the millworkers’ children, however, and the new generation of young workers. It was the workers’ children, Iswalker said, who were forced to bear the brunt of the shift toward informal-sector work as watchmen, courier boys, and vegetable sellers, which Iswalker has seen many of his colleagues’ children do. (Iswalker himself is a former millworker—a clerk from the Modern Mill, the same mill his father worked at while he was growing up.)

Even in the more formal sector, work is now increasingly shifting toward contract labor, which Iswalker predicts will lead to a crisis of social security down the road. The formality and unionization of the mills was what gave workers rights and enabled them to demand the compensation that allowed them to walk away from deindustrialization without being entirely crippled. Workers today in the informal or contract sector have no such protection or social-security net beneath them. As for what their future holds, Iswalker said that no one is examining that question.

Today, the struggle of the former millworkers is not so different from the struggle many Mumbaikars face: it is the fight for affordable housing. With Iswalker (now in his mid sixties) at their helm, Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti spearheads the ongoing fight for millworkers’ rights to housing in Mumbai’s island city on former mill land. It’s one more chapter in Mumbai’s continuous story, laid out in the city’s fabric for all to see.

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Photo: Christine McLaren