Mills in Mumbai: the Loss and Renewal of a City

Phoenix Mills 2

This is an example of a Bombay mill as a palimpsest.  Once the Phoenix Mill, it now serves the role of a mall.

India United Mill 1

Another potential fate for a Bombay mill: delapidation and maybe, eventually, demolition.  

Cotton green mills

Cotton Green, located in Girangaon, the hub of the textile industry in India, circa 1910.  Interesting juxtaposition with the Taj Mahal Hotel in the background.  

World One 3

One of the most remarkable developments in the Girgagaon area is what will become among the world's tallest buildings, at almost 1500 feet, built on the former property of a mill.  Here it is seen under construction.   


Shakti Mills

An even more delapidated example of the fate of a mill.  

  1. Bombay, the City of Gold 


It is this naked and limitless spirit of enterprise, this infinitely inventive drive to turn anything into money that is the essential characteristic of Bombay.”  (I.80)


The fragile position of mills in Mumbai conveys the changing landscape of the city, and the changing priorities of the citizens.  The value of the mills, even as historical and cultural relics, has waned significantly, whereas the value of the land they sit on has skyrocketed.  This has ironic development has resulted in a “complex and violent tug of war” (I.83).  Who deserves ownership, and who gets to benefit from the enormous real estate value of these properties?  Due to the immensely sensitive nature of the situation, numerous people linked to mill properties and to the very issue were murdered in the 1990s.  After the assassination of Datta Samant, the principal leader of the great 1982 riots, a bundh, a universal strike,was called in the city of Bombay, and the city lay in wait, uncertain whether “mass bloodshed” would result (I.83).  The activity surrounding the undetermined fate of the textile mills caused a shift in the criminal underbelly of Bombay.  Gang warfare soon broke out as shady groups tried to finagle their way into potentially beneficial deals.  This transition showed the very undercurrents that drove (and resulted from) the changing shape of how Bombay functioned.  Along with the change from Bombay to Mumbai came an economy that was no longer manufacturing-based, but based on so-called “financial and high-level services” (I.84). 

In addition, a number of rulings have been carried out by the Mumbai High Court vis-à-vis the future of these buildings.  Past rulings have continuously been overturned, amended, and redefined.  This has only added to the tumult surrounding the fate of the mills.  In the words of one article from Economic and Political Weekly, “In a manner more far-reaching than the immediate strain on the city’s infrastructure, such changes [with regard to the land occupied by former mills] promise to irrevocably alter the city, including eroding its heritage” (VI).  The mills are not just obsolete buildings in a backwater neighborhood: they represent the growing pains and turbulence of Mumbai itself.  


2. Relics of the Working Class History


What does it mean to let the fate of the mills of Girgaon succumb to the demands of commerce and real estate?  Aside from the historical importance of the existing structures, there is an ethical dimension to demolishing these lieux de mémoire, especially after the Development Plan of 1990 greatly reduced the restrictions on land usage.  What may appear at first to be a perfect opportunity to seize the profits of property that is readily available in reality represents a lack of social concern which threatens to eradicate the signs of Bombay’s working class history (II.367).  In this sense, Mumbai owes it to a great portion of Mumbaikar society to preserve the remnants of “industrial India’s heartland” (II.367).  To preserve these old mills is to preserve the history of the city, and to resist the urge to surrender to the values of capitalism.


3. Ongoing Legacy


Another article from Economic and Political Weekly delineated other ways in which the 1982 riots altered the sociocultural landscape of Bombay.  The article even cited the power and objectives of the Shiv Sena as an outcome of the so-called “crisis of crisis management” emphasized by the events of 1982.  The “crisis of crisis management” resulted from the odd way of dealing with the strikes which left around 240,000 people without jobs: the way in which the strikes were unpoliticized, with left-wing political forces never stepping in.  It was this failure of progressive bodies to step in which, according to the article, was responsible for the gruesome, religiously-charged murders of December 1992.  Somewhat counter-intuitively, the 1982 riots seem to be the origin of years of the government being a passive bystander.  Whether or not we are to believe this, it is clear that what happened in 1982, what led up to it, as well as what resulted from it, all embody the spirit of Mumbai: the tensions, the mixed motives, and most of all, the never-static nature of the city. 


Why does the aftermath of the 1982 riots continue to, in some way, define the city of Mumbai? 


The Mumbai mills are palimpsests, fragments of the past, present, and future.  The 1982 riots, then, were a first blow to the security of Bombay’s preeminent industry.  The riots instigated change, and called into question the very identity of the city.  Bombay seems still to be recovering from the 1982 riots.  It is unsure whether to plunge headlong into the future, and come to terms with its own continuous, unbridled change (embodied by the question of whether to develop the mills into commercial centers and housing), or to preserve those relics which might bear witness to its past (and preserve the mills, despite the need for extra space).