Girangaon: 'mills to malls' story, and of tragedies in making

Spread over nearly 600 acres, Girangaon or the "village of the mills" in Mumbai is part of the history of this city. Just for comparison, Mumbai's mills boast of a history of over 150 years, whereas Mumbai's vada-pav is just 50 years old. In fact, the origin of vada-pav was in the very mill-heartland of Mumbai.

As Bombay transformed into Mumbai, over the last few decades, Girangaon's landscape transformed from one of tall chimneys and shop-floors into swanky offices, hotels, skyscrapers, themed restaurants, pubs, discotheques, gaming zones, multiplexes, supermarkets, etc. This is all about the aspirations of the rich and upper middle class and the debit card-credit card culture post the economic reforms.

Colonial-era Bombay was once referred to as 'Manchester of the East' for its 100-odd mills, but Mumbai still lacks a textile museum to showcase its heritage. The change from the 20th century to the 21st was much needed to boost the economy and image of the country, but the process hasn't exactly been smooth and above board. Gross violations of building bylaws, fire safety rules and environmental regulation has marked the transformation.  

The Kamala Mills compound fire that claimed 14 lives on the eve of New Year, has yet again brought to life the 'mills vs malls' debate, raising tough questions on the economic, social, safety and security aspects.  

The areas of Tardeo, Byculla, Mazgaon, Reay Road, Lalbaug, Parel, Naigaum, Sewri, Worli and Prabhadevi that housed the mills and the chawls where the workers stayed came to be collectively known as Girangaon (mill-village), but today if one passes through Senapati Bapat Marg, one can see the sea-change that this place has undergone as they walk across the compounds of Kamala Mills, Phoenix Mills, Raghuvanshi Mills, Todi Mills and so on. The area commands one of the highest real estate rentals in the country. These mills were owned by traders like the Tatas, Petits, Wadias, Currimbhoys, Thakerseys, Sassoons, Khataus, Goculdas, Cottons and Greaves. Some eventually went to the National Textile Corporation Ltd (NTC).

The story of 'mills to malls' started aro ­und 160 years ago when in 1856, the Bombay Spinning and Weaving Company was set up in Tardeo, a year before the Indian rebellion of 1857 and just three years after the Great Indian Peninsula Railway ran Asia's first train from Bori Bunder, later rebuilt as Victoria Terminus and now known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, to Thana (now Thane) in April 1853.

By 1865, there were 10 mills in Bombay and more than 6,500 were employed in them. The British government had given the textile industry a boost in terms of incentives, like long-term leases (some for 999
years), as mills stimulated economic growth
and employment. Some figures say that in 1900, there were 130 mills in Mumbai.

Both men and women worked in Bombay – almost from sunrise to sunset. The death blow to the mills came in 1982, when trade union leader Datta Samant led the Great Bombay Textile Strike to highlight the plight of mill workers, nearly 2.4 lakh of them by then. Samant was shot dead allegedly by the underworld in 1997. The mills subsequently shut down and some were taken over by NTC. Incidentally, the strike is yet to be formally called off.

There are stories around the mills, like that of Mukesh Mills in Colaba where the Amitabh Bachchan-Kimi Katkar song Jumma Chumma of Hum was shot. In the Bollywood movies of the 70s and 80s, one can see shots of the mills as well as of the flourishing crimes of the day. The 2013 Shakti Mills incident, in which a Mumbai-based photo-journalist was gangraped, brought to light the dark side of the abandoned mills. The Mahesh Manjrekar 2010 film City of Gold - Mumbai 1982: Ek Ankahee Kahani traces the story of how land became the currency of the businessmen-politician-underworld-trade unions nexus in Mumbai.

Disruptive transformations

The redevelopment of cotton mills began around 1992 in a small way when residential and commercial buildings started coming up. But the major work started around 2004, which changed the landscape and is often considered as one of the most disruptive urban transformations.

Veteran activist and journalist Jatin Desai brings out two distinct points. "Firstly, the redevelopment of the mills has changed the identity of Mumbai from being an industrial town to a financial city. Secondly, it has given rise to an upper middle-class or neo-rich. It has also led to some kind of social tension, with the Marathi people losing their lands and rights to rich non-Marathi people."

Leading RTI activist Anil Galgali points out the issue of corruption in the transformation of the mills to malls - whether it is at the level of the Maharashtra government or the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation or Mumbai Police and so on.
"There are so many mills on which malls have come up. As per the law, when a mill
is developed, the land has to be divided among the developer, MHADA for housing and BMC for open spaces and grounds," he said. Ask how much land has gone to MHADA for housing, and you won't get a proper reply. "What about issues like FSI, safety, licences…there are umpteen number of departments often at loggerheads or in collusion, denying information or refusing to take complaints," he said. "From top to bottom, the system is the same."

Veteran political analyst Prakash Akolkar, author of Mumbai on Sale, says. "The local Marathi people here used to go to Hindmata or Bharatmata cinemas and enjoyed vada-pav. Today, the people who now control these places, most of them non-Maharashtrians, go to multiplexes or discotheques and pubs and fine dining restaurants, and vada-pav has given way to burgers."

Akolkar says that every government and administration, regardless of which party was in power, has ignored the deliberate and large-scale violation of rules and regulations. The Kamala Mills compound fire was perhaps just one tragedy due to those irregularities. Many more are waiting to happen.

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