This Story Behind Decline Of Mills In Mumbai Will Haunt You Forever!

While today when we go to Phoenix Mall (Mall in South Mumbai) we won’t give a thought on why there’s a Chimney in the middle of the mall.

Why they named its Phoenix mall? Why not a Unicorn mall?

Why some structures still have sloping roof profiles. Is there a past??

YES, indeed and to understand this we need to go a century back to understand the situation of mills in Bombay.


These mill districts were the birthplace of India’s First working class as the Bombay Textile industry was the harbinger of India’s modern industry and the economic backbone of the city. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the city had been something of a backwater in the Indian Empire. The administrative and trading center of the subcontinent had, since the time of the British Conquest been in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and the wars with the Maratha’s, the lack of transportation, and other links had hindered Bombay’s growth. But certain historical events spurred the growth of the city. The consolidation of colonial power after the uprising of 1857, the end of the Maratha wars, and the setting of the western Indian. Hinterland under colonial power; the depression in the global cotton market because of the American Civil War and the opening of the Suez Canal in the 1860s.

The signboard of the revamped "Phoenix Centre", destination for corporate investment, elite business and pleasure
The signboard of the revamped “Phoenix Centre”, destination for corporate investment, elite business and pleasure

The first great mill strike occurred in 1919 when 1.5 lakh workers struck work for 18days to demand an increase in wages. The strike was successful despite the lack of established union leadership.

Between October 1928 and April 1929 there were more than 70 strikes. These strikes gave birth to GIRNI KAMGAR UNION (GKU).

From the 1920s to 1940s Girangaon became a stronghold of the Left, represented by GKU, and bred a new generation of national leaders based in the labor movement like N.M. Joshi, S.A. Dange.

The second world war, in which India formed a major base for the allied forces in Asia was a time of much political ferment in Girangaon. Phoenix Mills was itself the site of a famous public meeting of Subhash Chandra Bose and the mill workers of Bombay, a militant constituency that Bose knew he could rely on in his struggle against colonial exploitation.

01_bowling company

In Bombay on 2nd October 1939, 90,000 workers – mostly from the textile mills went on a one-day strike against the unilateral declaration of war against Germany and Italy on India’s behalf by Britain. This strike, against the dragging of India into an imperialist war, is generally considered the first anti-war strike in the world working-class movement.

The support extended by the communist party to the British during World War II alienated the fiery national sentiments of the mill workers of Girangaon. In the years preceding independence, the congress was able to win the political loyalty of the mill areas through the consistent opposition to the British and their war. The mill workers participated spontaneously in the abortive quit India movement launched in Bombay in August 1942 by Gandhi. The working-class support for the freedom struggle led by the congress was channeled into new unions started by congress politicians to woo the workers away from the communists. These unions were later consolidated into the Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh (RMMS) in 1947.

The mill owners began to siphon funds from their textile mills to other more profitable activities. On the other hand, in the late 1970s, hoarding of Urban land and non-implementation of the Urban Land Ceiling Act, 1976 caused to arise in real estate values in the island city of Bombay encouraging many businesses and industries to sell their lands for a profit and move elsewhere. However, the mills and millowners could not avail of this profitable opportunity.

fire and ice disco

According to the Municipal Development Rules, the mill lands are reserved for industrial use, as they were given to the millowners at concessional rates by the colonial Bombay Government at the beginning of the century to promote industrial production and to develop the city and its hinterland.

Since then, because of the highly organized and strident nature of mill workers and the fear of the owners of their agitations, both industrialists and the government retained the stipulation of industrial use of mill lands. Because of these restrictions on the change of use the textile mills could not sell their lands except through surreptitious and illegal means.

It is against this background that the decline and sickness of the textile mills need to be seen. Millowners were less interested in developing their industry than in profiteering from real estate and the phenomenon of sick industries is not the cause but a symptom of the fact that real estate has become more valuable than textile production. The mills have not declined on their own but through being rendered sick by their owners. Those that remain in business do so because of the ease with which they can subcontract textile production to cheap, unprotected labor in power looms outside the city.

girni kamgar sangh


The strategy adopted by most millowners has been similar. First, the profit from the mills is siphoned off, outdated machinery is not upgraded and production is reduced or subcontracted, thereby rendering the mill “sick”. The sickness of the mill and the decline in the profitability and productive capacity becomes an excuse to stop paying wages to the workers.

Secondly, the management approaches the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR), a quasi-judicial body constituted by the Central Government under the Sick Industrial Companies (Special Provisions) Act 1985 to revive sick industries or decide on their viability in changed economic conditions. BIFR usually has sanctioned schemes submitted by the mill management for a revival and modernization of the mill, provided tax concessions and participation by financial institutions, and granted permission for sale or lease of a portion of the mill land so that the proceeds of the land can be reinvested in the mill

The Third move of the management, however, is to pocket the money sanctioned by BIFR and Government and proceed with the sale of the land for other purposes. The elegance of the scheme is that there is no monitoring agency to ensure that the schemes sanctioned the BIFR are actually implemented and the stated objectives complied with. This giant loophole is not incidental. While the workers’ wages were withheld and the machinery from the mill removed and sold, they are arbitrarily denied entrance to the mill on working days by shutting of the gates, and the BIFR revival scheme is quietly buried. Despite court orders, the workers are forced out of their employment and because there is no monitoring of the revival scheme to ensure implementation of the use of the sanctioned public money, a blind eye is turned to these generally illegal developments and constructions on reserved industrial lands.

worker of girni kamgar

The mill worker of the city perhaps had their last hero in the figure of Datta Samant, who led the Great textile strike of 1982-3, which was essentially a revolt against the straitjacket of the RMMS and the central demand of which was the scrapping of the BIFR act. The failure of the strike resulted in the removal of the halt of the mill worker of Bombay and the gradual extermination of the rest in the decades that followed.

girangoan bachao andolan demands

These are a series blog so if you are not following anything is because you haven’t read from the start Click here

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UNTIL THEN, STAY TUNED & STAY SAFE                                                         


Ripping the Fabric: The Decline of Mumbai and its Mills – Darryl D’monte

The Archive of Loss: Lively Ruination in Mill Land Mumbai – Maura Finkelstein

SOURCES AND REFERENCES USED: – Murder of the Mills: A case study of phoenix mills

Mills in Bombay

In the previous blog we saw that the city got its shape by the 1850s. Trade started flourishing in different sectors. People from different communities started migrating because of trade. A working-class of people started migrating for jobs. This action resulted-in increase in population. But to see the trade of cotton mills we have to take a detour to the west.

Its beautiful bolls,

And bales of rich value, the Master controls.

Of “mud-stills” he prates, and would haughtily bring

The world to acknowledge that “Cotton is king”

– The gospel of Slavery, by “Iron Gray,” (Abel C. Thomas) 1864.


In the 1830s and 1840s, there was a common phrase for the growth of the American economy was “cotton is King”. It is important to understand that cotton was one of the world’s first luxury commodities, after sugar and tobacco.

Cotton was very profitable and was interconnected with the economies of cotton plantation and the Northern banking industry, New England textile factories and a huge proportion of the economy of Great Britain overlapped. 

a r street

Traditionally, it was assumed that the slump in the cotton industry was the simple result of a shortage of raw cotton created by the blockade of the southern ports during the civil war. As a result, the depression came to be called the “cotton famine”. However, recent academic research questions this interpretation, believing that the depression in the cotton industry was inevitable since the boom of the late 1850s had created an over-capacity which was unsustainable. 


The position of many producers was aggravated by the growing substitution of inferior Indian cotton for American cotton from 1862, which led to soaring production costs. Since markets were quiet, price rises were often inadequate to compensate for spiraling production costs, and profit margins were eroded. For those marginal firms with few reserves and little opportunity to reduce costs, the future was bleak, particularly for many of the more isolated country mills. Being some distance from the commercial centers of Liverpool and Manchester, they already operated with inflated costs. These circumstances sounded their death knell.

mount mary stairs

Yarn and cloth prices in the cotton trade as a whole began to fall after the American Civil War – more a reaction to the inflated levels of the war years than to the freeing up of supplies or the opening up of markets. Had the downwards movement halted at a certain price, there would have been few problems. It continued, however, almost uninterrupted for the next three decades, part of a world decline in prices. This downward spiral inevitably reduced already stretched profit margins, discouraging investment and expansion – especially in coarse production, which suffered most. 

sassoon dock

The prosperity of the cotton industry had depended heavily upon exports for much of the 19th century, yet it was in foreign markets that the performance of the cotton industry was most disappointing. Yarn exports actually fell and cloth exports, which had been growing 8.3% per annum between 1820 – 60, grew by a mere 1.4% per annum between 1870 – 1910. Britain’s cloth manufacturers were for the first time facing foreign competition. The impact on demand was exacerbated by the effect of the world decline in prices, which reduced the import capabilities of many of Britain’s customers.


Competition first came from The United States and some European countries, where cotton industries which had been developed from the 1830s grew rapidly. Initially, the threat was minimal and Lancashire retained its comparative advantage in cotton production, her merchants simply tapping new markets e.g. India, the Far East, South America, and the Levant

ma haji ali

Before the middle of the 19th century, India used to export cotton to Britain, and then reimport the textile. In 1820 the total textile import cost only Rs. 350,000. However, these costs escalated tremendously until in 1860 textile imports stood at Rs. 19.3 million.

The impetus towards the founding of a cotton industry came from Indian entrepreneurs. The first Indian cotton mill, “The Bombay Spinning Mill”, was opened in 1854 in Bombay by Cowasji Nanabhai Davar. Opposition from the Lancashire mill owners was eventually offset by the support of the British manufacturers of textile machinery.

By 1870 there were 13 mills in Bombay. Cotton exports grew during the American Civil War when supplies from the USA were interrupted. At the end of 1895 there were 70 mills; growing to 83 in 1915. A period of stagnation set in during the recession of the 1920s. In 1925 there were 81 mills in the city. After World War II, under strong competition from Japan, the mills declined. In 1953 there remained only 53 mills in the city.

horniman circle

The growth of the cotton industry was spurred, and for a small time eclipsed, by the cotton boom. Before the American Civil War, the mills of England imported only 20% of their cotton from India. With the blockade of the Confederate ports, Indian cotton prices rose. By 1865, when General Lee’s army surrendered, Bombay had earned 70 million pounds sterling in the cotton trade.

This money spurred on a financial bubble, with land reclamation schemes and the dockyards attracting huge investments. By January 1865 Bombay had 31 banks, 8 reclamation companies, 16 cotton pressing companies, 10 shipping companies, 20 insurance companies and 62 joint-stock companies. Within two months the American Civil War ended and most of these companies went into liquidation. Large numbers of speculators became bankrupt. However, wealth had been created and this led immediately to an industrial growth.

haji ali

The rapid growth in mills was sustained by a large migration of mainly Marathi speaking workers into the city. Most often, the male member of the family would work in Bombay, leaving the rest of the family in the village. These workers were initially accommodated in hostels. Eventually, these chawls became tenements, with full families crammed into single rooms. The mills filled up Parel and then expanded westwards all the way to Worli.

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