Bhiwandi, the power loom town close to Mumbai, is reeling from several challenges that threaten its existence. Labourers, power loom owners and local people, predominantly Muslims, are struggling to cope with the financial and logistical problems of the power loom industry.
This article, originaly written in Urdu, has been translated into English by the EPW editorial staff. The Urdu article is available as a PDF.
It is said that no country can be considered developed or on the road to progress if its minority population is deprived. Equitable economic development is intrinsically related to the economic well-being of minorities. There are many pockets in India, with a large Muslim population—Jamshedpur, Muradpur, Meerut, Bhiwandi, Malegaon and certain areas in Gujarat, to name a few—that has shown considerable progress in specific trades and industries. Unfortunately, these are also areas that were badly hit by communal riots and local people once occupied in trade and local industry were forced to queue up in relief camps, almost never to recover from their economic and social ghettoisation.
History of Bhiwandi
The situation in Bhiwandi, a suburb of Mumbai known as the Manchester of Asia, is no different. Bhiwandi is known for its power loom industry—it accounts for 10 lakh out of 65 lakh looms in the country. The town has a significant percentage of Muslims. Reports suggest that 90% of the population of Bhiwandi is associated with the power loom industry. Regrettably, this town has been severely affected by consecutive communal riots in 1969, 1984, and 1992. In spite of communal violence, the people of Bhiwandi have lived up to the challenges and continued their struggle for livelihood.
This article is an effort to understand the occupation, trade, economy and issues related with the people of Bhiwandi. This would not have been possible if a dialogue with the locals had not been established. It seems that the people of Bhiwandi have always been ignored by political parties. Their dismal conditions and deprivation of basic amenities make it clear that none of the political representatives paid heed to their condition.
The unofficial population of Bhiwandi is around 15 lakh. This old city, part of the Konkan region, is known as the “Manchester of Asia” and it is claimed that Bhiwandi received electricity before Thane in the 18th century because it had already established itself as an industrial city. In the distant past, an industrious man named Samad Shaikh urged the locals to “sell off gold and buy iron.” He could see that Bhiwandi was quickly turning into an industrial sweatshop and people who would exploit this situation were likely to make financial gains.
The situation in Bhiwandi today presents more difficulties and fewer resources. Even if resources are available in certain cases, people cannot access them. Moreover, sops announced by the state government to revive the struggling power looms have remained on paper. The traders or the labourers have not received any assurance that the plans will be implemented.
There are grand plans to set up a “textile park” in Bhiwandi. However, it is clear that these measures are unlikely to find currency with the people of Bhiwandi. When Comrade Asrar Ahmad Ansari, a social worker of Bhiwandi, was asked about the proposed “textile park,” he replied that people were looking for “roti chapatti” and not for cake pastry.
Problems in the Industry
Large numbers of power loom industries, some providing employment to 200 labourers, have closed down over the last couple of years. Every power loom would provide employment to at least 15 more people, mainly suppliers and transporters. As a result of the decline in the industry, power loom was closed and employees had to look for alternate occupations.
The working conditions in these looms were dismal. Labourers have had to work for 12 hours for meagre wages which was insufficient for a decent livelihood. Labourers also complained that owners of power looms had reduced the work force. Hence, one man often had to handle 12 looms alone which was normally the work of six people. However, payments had not been increased in accordance with the back-breaking work.
The manufacturers in Bhiwandi are plagued with cheap Chinese products. Traders have to pay a duty on ready-made stock produced in Bhiwandi whereas Chinese products are exempt from it. The Indian cloth became costly due to vacillating yarn prices, high electricity charges and duty imposed by the government. Chinese manufacturers are at an advantage as China provides material at low prices. Over 35% looms in Bhiwandi have closed down and more than 2.5 lakh people have migrated to other places in pursuit of their livelihood. Ekram Ansari, associated with the loom industry in Bhiwandi, said that the government’s export policy on yarn had created difficulties. They were incurring losses due to a temporary ban on the supply of yarn. If prices as well as the supply of yarn would be balanced or reshuffled on a regular basis (fortnightly), then there could be some relief.
Intekhab Alam Ansari, a labourer associated with a power loom, said that his forefathers were also associated with the power loom sector and claimed that 15 years ago the price of yarn was changed monthly but now there was no control over the price of yarn. Alam said that there was no fixed price, quantity or quality mark on the boxes of yarn and yarn traders had been given a free hand to change prices at any time. The loom owners had no option but to follow prices and sell products in the market with the rate fixed in advance by ready-made purchasers. Power and distribution costs (currently managed by Torrent Power, a private power generation and distribution company) would also have to be addressed, he said.
Suhail Ansari, president of the Panchpeer Islampura Quresh Power Loom Association (PIQPLA) said that price of yarn should be fixed and price changes cannot be made more than once in a month. Faizan Azmi, president of the Maharashtra Power Loom Federation, said that black marketing in cotton and cotton yarn supply badly hit the industry. For years they had been demanding the government to assess the situation but neither the previous nor the current government had shown any interest in the matter.
The power loom owners claim that ups and downs in the yarn prices were a gamble and they incurred enormous losses. Such unstable economic situations make it difficult for them to pay salaries on time. They reduced the workforce in order to tackle some of the losses they incur on a daily basis. Nothing much can be done, since decline in the local textile industry augmented problems.
Sensing inhuman work conditions in the looms, the young generation has shied away from taking up employment in these units. Educated young people take up jobs in corporates and various organisations, and earn in a month what their parents were earning in a year. The youths who are less educated were looking for other businesses rather than thinking of joining looms.
It is evident that the people of Bhiwandi have many demands from the powers that be, but so far no government has resolved their concerns. A federation of various smaller organisations of loom workers, working under the banner of “Sangharsh Samiti” is trying to address the issues faced by the power loom industry. One hopes that the authorities will take heed to improve the financial and social condition of this industrial town and protect the livelihood of the many labourers who depend on the power loom industry.
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