Bombay or Mumbai is known as the city of dreams, the economic capital of India and in the past as the Manchester of India. It has played its part throughout the history of building dreams, nurturing dreams and at times have seen it shatter into pieces. Bombay, initially a port city later transformed from a trading town to a manufacturing centre in the mid-1880s. It was the venture of textile mills in Bombay which gave an economic boost to the city at that time. The inception of textile mills provided a huge opportunity for businessmen and the working class as a source of employment and income with the establishment of the first textile mill “The Bombay Spinning Mill” in 1854.
Cotton green mills in front of the Taj Mahal Hotel, Colaba in 1910. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Textile mills in India have played a very significant role in the development of the country as a result of economic growth, employment generation, and foreign exchange earnings. As the textile industry flourished, Bombay positioned itself as a textile-based city and drew the attention of many working-class people to migrate to the city for employment and income. It gave birth to a mill precinct known as Girangaon which means “village of mills” stretching from Lalbaug to Parel and Worli to Sewri with over 60 mills in its domain. Along with the development of textile mills, housing for the workers called chawls began to develop in Girangaon. The mixed setup built with unique literature-inspired by the mill worker’s lifestyle was established. The profound architecture in the precinct parallel to socio-cultural and political entities imprinted events of national importance.
Soon by the mid-nineteenth century, the textile industry started encountering its downfall subjected to several reasons. The world had discovered many technological advances severely competing with conventional handloom technology. It witnessed a rising fuel and raw material price, making it unreservedly uneconomical to function within city limits accounting to high power and tax cost. Parallelly, as the price of yarn and cloth began to drop it led to the progressive collapse. The skyrocketing real estate prices drove many mill owners to sell off their lands, leaving lakhs of workers unemployed. It was this time that Bombay leaped into the new millennium, transitioning from a skyline filled with smoky chimneys to sophisticated skyscrapers, from Bombay to Mumbai.
Eventually, the Great Bombay Textile Strike led by trade union leader Dutta Samant with mill workers of Mumbai in 1982 marked the concluding shut down of mills. This movement had involved political bodies that fought for the rights of the mill workers with the government and mill owners. This strike failed to achieve any success; rather, it encountered airy hopes by initiation of The Bombay Industrial Relations Act, 1946 (BIR Act). It was under this act that the strike was called off doing no good to the workers with no signs of compensation. Instead, during this time the mill owners strategically outsourced the work to laborers based in Bhiwandi, outside Bombay with terms and conditions which virtually exploited the workers. Growing losses and its impact marked the end of the textile industry in Bombay.
The after-effects led to excruciating events that witnessed a considerable number of mill workers and their families to leave Mumbai. The direction of the city towards high rise urban growth, eradication of mill lands, and loss of employment made mill workers vulnerable for survival. For the one who stayed back, they gradually seeped into unorganized sectors or worked as contract workers. Since decades have passed, still the generations of mill workers are affected by the damage caused due to the economic change of wave that engulfed the city.
The redevelopment of the mills and mill lands eventually began with the trend shifting in the skyline from smoky chimneys to high-end skyscrapers and malls, mill land prices soaring high because of their prime location and with time eradicated the working-class user groups of the city. The city inherited industrial heritage through these mills. Industrial heritage is one of the rare known forms of heritage-based events of an industrial process rather than artistic importance. The journey of these mills and the impact on the city’s fabric are symbolic of the processed change, physical expenses, and effects of human actions. The genre addresses the less glorified and dowdy version of the past belonging to the workers rather than the affluent and famous.
Moreover, no doubt there were several attempts made by conservationists to save these gems as they played a significant role in shaping the city. Documents such as “Mills for Sale” by Darryl D’Monte and “One Hundred Years, One Hundred Voices, the Millworkers of Girangaon: An Oral History” by Neera Adarkar, Meena Menon, and many more have spoken at length on this topics debating, elaborating and lastly justifying the importance for their existence even in the future. The remaining mills that exist in present times are owned by NTC (National Textile Corporation) and BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation). There had been a proposal for one of the mills – India United Mill 2 and 3 that had allocated heritage structures within its complex, had a textile museum proposed as an adaptive reuse project.
Nevertheless, there are few examples such as Kamala Mills, Phoenix Mills (which is now a mall), Bombay Spinning Mills, Raghuvanshi Mills (currently a high-end shopping complex), Todi Mills and so on have been redeveloped. As parts of the mills are retained rather than completely turning into dust has given hope towards better preservation.
This event challenges the role of architects, urban planners, and other associated professionals to rethink the direction of the city’s growth. As we get more and more drawn towards clean-swept, glass buildings, skyscrapers, and modernist cities, we must not avoid our history and its elements. It has not just given a different look to the city but rather it is a piece of identity which has shaped Mumbai to its current state.
Lastly, as professionals and also as members of the community we must strive to do our very best because the site, the buildings, the architectural imprints, and humanitarian history associated with these mills deserves the respect. After years of being into the ignorance of care and on verge of demolition, we owe it to the land. The ideology resonates with the fact that if everything in the city is pulled down to debris and modernised we might lose the city’s foundation essence of heritage and its history.