Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Phoenix Mills - because the story must be told

This was a long overdue post. I’ve been wanting to do it ever since my Mill Land Blogs (links in the sidebar). Then I stumbled on this brilliant and well-researched case-study by Shekhar Krishnan. My post is based almost entirely on that report, which was done for the Girangaon Bachao Andolan and Lokshahi Hakk Sanghatana in April 2000.

Cross-reference on the Phoenix Mill issue can also be found in the submissions of the Girni Kamgaar Sangharsh Samiti (GKSS) to the High Court in the Mill Land case. (para 195[ii], page289, PIL Writ Petition No. 482 of 2005). (The 368-page Oct-05 High Court judgement can be downloaded here).

Incorporated in 1905, Bitia Mills was later christened as Phoenix Mills and is located in Lower Parel, Bombay. What follows next is how “High Street Phoenix” was born. Or how Phoenix Mills was killed. Its story is proof of how some mill-owners bended laws to shut down their mills, siphon off funds and cast aside their workers like an unnecessary liability. It’s a story that needs to be told.

I’ll start with an extract from Meera Menon and Neera Adarkar’s comprehensive and moving book – One Hundred Years, One Hundred Voices. The book is about the history of Bombay’s Mill Lands (Girangaon) as seen through the eyes of one hundred of its inhabitants.

Gangadhar Chitnis (73 years). General Secretary of the Girni Kamghar Union. Excellent academic record, joined the Communist Party as a fulltime worker. Worked with S. A. Dange in the GKU.

“Bitia Mills had a lot of women, at least 1,200 in the reeling and winding departments. In 1938, the mill management increased the workload by asking each woman worker to handle two wheels instead of one. The women went on strike. They gheraoed the manager and Ruia, the owner. That was the first time gherao had been used as a weapon by the workers. They sat down on the stairs outside Ruia’s office and wouldn’t allow anyone in or out. Morarji Desai was the Home Minister in the Provisional government then. Morarji was totally anti-communist, anti-worker and pro-capitalist. He could not tolerate this action by the women. He asked the police to move in, but he was warned that there would be a bloodbath, so he withdrew and invited both parties to the negotiating table. Then the union leaders got Ruia out of the office. There was no settlement so the mill went on strike and in support, all other mill-workers also went on strike. Known as the Bitia Mills Strike, it was historic because of the role played by women. People collected money and food from the neighbouring chawls for the striking workers. Subash Chandra Bose came to Bitia Mills to support the struggle. There was no road in front of the mill the, where there is now Tulsi Pipe Road (Senapati Bapat Marg). There was a paddy field. That is where the meeting took place. It was raining on that day. The workers were all holding umbrellas. Then Dange said, “Subhash-babu wants to see all of you, but all he can see is umbrellas.” In a moment all the umbrellas closed, and the workers stood in the rain. Subash-babu was taken aback.”

Yes, all of that happened on the same ground where cars are parked today, on the same ground that the Bowling Alley exists today and on the same ground where scores of people shop today. Remember that the next time you’re at “High Street Phoenix”.

Timeline to destruction:
1977: A fire destroys the Blower Department of Phoenix Mills. The entire four-storey structure was razed to the ground. No cause was established. The Mill was closed for three years and 700 mill workers and 400 office staff were rendered jobless.

1979: Govt of Maharashtra sanctions a rehab scheme, which included development of a commercial complex. Funds generated from this were specifically to be used for revival of the mill. The mill was never revived and relief schemes never implemented. Workers were not paid their dues and work was not restarted.

1982: The great textile mill strike. Phoenix Mills management moves to declare their mills as “sick”. Work is shifted/outsourced to the unorganised powerloom sector. It is also alleged that shortly after this strike, the land-scams begin. Sai Motor Services currently today stands on the land that used to be the workers canteen.

1984: Govt attempts another relief and revival scheme. The Mill was allowed to develop 69,085 sq. mt for office space and 22,400 sq. mt was converted from industrial use to residential use. The Mill takes back 1,200 workers released after the strike. But, all are taken on badli (temporary) basis including erstwhile permanent workers.

1995: Yet again, the mgmt moves to declare the mill as sick and approaches the BIFR. The approved revival scheme allows tax concessions. Mgmt is directed to upgrade machinery and constitute a committee accountable to banks and financial institutions to oversee the modernisation and revival process. Once these tax concessions were approved, no revival scheme was implemented.

23rd April 1998 – The mgmt applies to the BMC for adding recreational facilities such as table tennis, health clubs and – of course - bowling alleys. On the grounds that its workers are “continuously demanding these facilities, and went on agitation in Jan-98”. Yes – workers demanding bowling alleys, sauna steam baths and billiards tables.

April and May 1998 – Mgmt begins to terminate services of staff across various departments. The processing dept is closed abruptly. Second and third shift at the Mills are stopped.

July 1998 – Labour Court issues an order to the Mill to restart closed departments and reinstate workers. Workers allege that just before the orders, mgmt had introduced a voluntary retirement scheme (VRS) for retrenched workers. In the meantime Phoenix Towers is constructed over what unions allege was space reserved for a municipal school and a public garden. Not a single paisa from these constructions goes to the workers.

Early-1999 – Phoenix Mills submits a report that it is no longer sick (i.e. turned net-worth positive). Till date, no one knows how.

Epilogue - May 1999 – Bowling Company opens at Phoenix Mills. This is an extract from their profile – “So many options, so little time. Presenting, ladies and gentlemen – The Bowling Company – India’s premier leisure centre. 30,000 square feet of state-of-the-art fun – that’s a first for Mumbai, we can tell you”.

The history of Bombay's Mill Lands is one that has not been largely told. And one that has been easily forgetton. All in the name of progress, in the name of redevelopment and freeing up of land seen as essential to bring down the sky-high property prices in Bombay, and in the name of making Bombay a financial hub like Singapore, Hong Kong, etc.

My attempt is to document what I can. So that we (or at least I) never forget the history of the grounds that have been cleared to make way for what stands today. As Santayana said "Those who forget the past, are condemned to repeat it".

Thanks, Shekhar, for that study.

Referenced Links
1. Shekhar Krishnan's case-study
2. The Oct-2005 High Court judgment on the Mill Land case
3. One Hundred Years One Hundred Voices: The Millworkers of Girangaon: An Oral History by Meena and Neera Darkar Menon
4. Also read Ripping the Fabric : The Decline of Mumbai and Its Mills by Darryl D'Monte