Labour

How the Once Flourishing Kanpur Textile Mills Decayed

The story of the decayed textile industry in Kanpur must start with the times of its flourish. The city’s tryst with textile manufacturing dates back to the year 1857.

The Ramala Sugar Mill. Credit: Sheikh Saaliq

Many textile workers have lost hope and have been forced to return to their native villages or started working in the unorganised sector as labourers. Credit: Sheikh Saaliq

There are at least three commonalities between Yaqoob Ansari, a fruit-seller, Babu Ram, a rickshaw puller, Lakshmi Kant, a beggar, and Lattu Singh, a truck-loader. All of them are from Uttar Pradesh’s biggest industrial township Kanpur, all of them were former workers in the once-famous textile mills of the city, and all of them have hidden their present professions from their families who live in their native villages. It seems almost unbelievable that the four, who were once skilled workers, have been relegated to jobs which they had never thought of doing. However, they have found an unfortunate confidence in around 20,000 skilled workers who were rendered unemployed after the big industrial textile units shut down in Kanpur in the early 2000s. It has forced all of them to take up jobs, that had earlier considered menial.

The government of India (GOI) ran nine composite textile mills in Kanpur. Five of them were run by the National Textile Corporation (NTC) and four by the British India Corporation (BIC), both undertakings of the GOI. Apart from these, many private textile units also figured in the city’s textile compass, the biggest of which were two companies run by the JK group owned by the Juggilal Kamlapat Singhania family that rose to prominence in the city in the early 1920s. All these made Kanpur the biggest industrial township in northern India and the biggest centre for business.

Today only two remain in a semi-functional state. The biggest of the government-run mill Lal Imli, that once had an international fame for the quality of its woollen textiles, produces only 5% of its capacity and remains a ghost of its past with its dilapidated but gigantic building, broken windows, and old machineries. The second mill that still functions is Juggilal Kamlapat Cotton Spinning and Weaving Mill, which remained shut for more than 10 years and is clawing back to revival. Yaqoob Ansari, a textile worker who now sells fruits summed up the situation aptly, “Earlier, Kanpur sent goods to the rest of the country, and now it has become a dumpyard for consumer goods.”

The story of the decayed textile industry in Kanpur must start with the times of its flourish. The city’s tryst with textile manufacturing dates back to the year 1857. The Satti Chaura revolt in which around 300 British personnel were killed on the orders of the revolt’s hero Nana Saheb. It jolted the colonisers so much that they decided turn Kanpur into a fortress, guarded by heavy deployment of army and police. A year after the revolt Kanpur looked different and was much safer for the British. Heavy deployment of army and police units in and around the city cascaded into a much higher demand for textiles in the form of canvass clothes, tents, shoes and woollen clothing. It was for this the British started new textile manufacturing units resulting in the first big production unit called Elgin Mills in 1862 followed by Muir Mills in 1882. Gradually Kanpur became the most important sourcing centre for the army and the police across colonial India. The Indian capitalist class also joined the trade and the JK Cotton mill was set up in 1928. A parallel leather industry, to meet army’s needs, flourished around this time but remained secondary to textiles. The biggest boom for the textile industry in Kanpur came in the form of the second world war when requirements of the defence personnel touched an all-time high.

Post-independence troubles

The textile industry showed first signs of crumble soon after India’s independence. Prominent families of Kanpur like the Jaipurias and the Kotharis bought textile mills from their British owners and reaped high profits as the demand for textiles surged in the process of nation building. With profits rising, the aspiration of textile mill owners to expand their empires also rose. In the process, the profits from textiles were directed towards setting up of other industries and new ventures. The textile industry suffered as as a result of declining investments towards modernisation of the mills. As the owners started incurring losses by the end of 1960s, they decided to shut down their units putting the lives of around 1 lakh workers in jeopardy.

It was then, when the GOI intervened and took over the nine biggest mills in Kanpur with a declared intention to generate more employment, to save the already employed and to cater to the rural demand for textiles apart from the army and police. The first mill to be nationalised was Victoria Mills in 1971, followed by others.

The nationalisation of textile units, that came as much-needed relief for the workers, turned out to be an ill-fated enterprise because of mismanagement that started at this juncture. While initial years of nationalisation saw a good growth in production, it became unsustainable again for exactly the same reasons that spelt its doom in private hands – lack of modernisation, absence of interest and innovation, and finally corruption.

“The contractor-administration-politician nexus grew very strong. Heavy duty corruption resulting in fudging of profit figures, despite high production, was the main reason that these industries started to decline,” said Daulat Ram, vice-president of UP committee of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).

“GOI never took the textile industries seriously. They appointed non-technical officers who had absolutely no knowledge of textile industries. They did not innovate to fuel production and were interested in their take-home salaries and other means to earn. Government’s insensitivity towards textile workers pushed the mills into such a state that workers had to fight for each and every right they are legally entitled to. Officershahi (bureaucratic dominance) destroyed the mills singlehandedly despite soaring demands of the army and the police, the main buyers of Kanpur textiles. We could not meet their demands as the production kept declining and the standards went low because of primitive machines,” he adds.

Liberalisation

By the 1980s, the mills had already started to show signs of irreparable decline as the government had no intentions to professionalise the management. And then started a new era when the government started introducing significant changes at the policy level. The Rajiv Gandhi government introduced what came to be known as the new textiles and handloom policy. In what can be termed as the early phase of liberalisation, the new policy advocated modernisation and professionalisation, but it also declared that the labour strength would be gradually reduced from around 2 crore textile workers across the country to around 50 lakh in the process without speaking of any particular rehabilitation package. The government changed yarn sourcing schemes and also gave concessions to power looms and decentralised production.

Kanpur, along with Mumbai, became the biggest casualty of this policy. The mills in Kanpur were composite mills, which mean that all the processes of textile manufacturing that included weaving, spinning, dying, washing and finishing were done under one roof. Concessions to power looms meant that these processes could be done separately at different places before the finished product reached the market. It started a decentralised mode of production. Power looms could operate from even one room from one producer, dying could be handled by a different producer, and all the processes could be managed differently at different places. India also started to import yarn that was cheaper and of a superior quality. This led to the fall of composite mills. Lack of enough power supply to these composite mills also encouraged decentralised private production. It is because of these factors, decentralised production have flourished in not just textiles, but also hosieries in Kanpur.

When this happened, the GOI made no effort to even repair their mills in Kanpur, let alone big investments in modernisation. “One worker used to work on four or five looms. But over the years, as machines started to decay, he could use only two looms. We conducted a survey in Lakshmi Ratan mills. Most of the machines were lying defunct because of minor problems. We found that in some cases nut bolts were missing, in some rubber pads used in looms were not there. These could be easily repaired without any investment. But there was no will in both the administrative and political fronts. We complained to the CBI that duplicate naphthalene balls were used to preserve the textiles that harmed the users. The management would buy it for 18 rupees per kg, but showed it as 36 rupees per kg. The CBI conducted a raid and found it to be true, but no action was taken from there on. Only workers stood to lose in the process,” said Hari Singh of Textile Mazdoor Ekta Parishad.

Meanwhile, in 1989, the K.K. Pandey committee was set up to implement the new textile policies. It recommended severe cut in the labour strength while also saying that the mills needed investments. After a sustained and militant labour movement around this time, it could not be implemented. On 24 January, 1989, the world’s longest railways jam by workers that lasted for 110 hours forced the government to withdraw the K.K. Pandey award.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The only remnant of the city’s rich textile history are the major roads and junctions of the city which are named after the once-vibrant mills. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Decline

In 1992, just a year after economic reforms were introduced, the Narasimha Rao government brought out a notice to stop production in all the GOI mills of Kanpur without officially closing it. They were all declared ‘sick’ units. The workers were encouraged to take voluntary retirement with inadequate compensation. Many left in the process and others struggled. But the final death knell for the textile industry came during the BJP’s government tenure at the Centre. Atal Bihari Vajapayee’s government started a better package for the voluntary retirement of workers, famously known as the Golden Handshake Scheme. But those who opted for it got only between 1 lakh rupees to 2.5 lakh rupees, an amount that could not last long to sustain workers. Out of 126 units of NTC, 72 were stopped overnight in 2002. The BIC units had already stopped functioning since June 2001. The rest that were not shut were referred to the Northern India Textile Research and Organisation (NITRA) to be evaluated so that it could check their viability. Most of the GOI-run and the privately-run mills were declared non-viable. The viable ones were sent to the newly formulated Board of Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR) for a financial package for revival.

Only two textile mills became eligible for the BIFR package: the Lal Imli and the JK Cotton mill. The BIFR relief package came with many riders. It allowed the management to cut wages of workers, deny them dearness allowances, and recruit no new labour, while the bureaucrats and managers of the mills could still enjoy the benefits of pay commissions. Since 2002, the salaries of the workers in private mills were constantly reduced . “I used to get around 6,000 rupees in 2002 and now I get something around 4000 rupees. And there are many more like me. The conditions are worse for weavers and spinners, and other manual labourers,” said Kailash Chand Sharma, a clerk in JK Cotton mill.

In 2002, around 14,000 workers in the NTC and 5,000 workers in the BIC were left without work, according to the Additional Labour Commissioner of UP Pradeep Srivastava. He said, “The textile rehabilitation fund, created by the government, also could not be disbursed as the mills have still been not closed officially. The fund can apply only if a unit has been closed officially.”

Many textile workers have lost hope and have been forced to return to their native villages or started working in the unorganised sector as labourers. The decline of the textile industry in Kanpur, has been, more often than not, attributed to the trade unions and their calls for strikes. However, the policy restructuring by successive governments, the resultant bureaucratic insouciance, and private corporates’ lack of interest have been the principal factors responsible for the industry’s decay. The trade unions, throughout the crisis, have been raising the slogan of modernisation. “‘No work, no payment’ has always been our slogan. We have always believed in eight hours of work, eight hours of rest, and eight hours of struggle. The mismanagement of textile industry left us with no option but to keep fighting for our rights. Why would we want our source of survival to end? You can check our records; we have always demanded more work when there was none in the mills; we were the only ones, not the government, to have appealed for modernisation on a continuous basis; we were the ones who kept blowing the whistle and exposed the corrupt nexus in the mills,” said Hari Singh.

The communal polarisation after the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya by the Sangh Parivar in 1992 and its significant impact on UP politics also did not help the trade unions to sustain its impact. It divided the labourers on communal lines and led to the ghettoisation of Muslims in Kanpur, a significant force in textile industry. The scheduled caste Koris, traditionally a weaving community and the second most important force in the trade union movement, rallied behind the Bahujan Samaj Party movement for securing social prestige and dignity. Such additional factors also led to a weakening trade union movement that ultimately led to the closure of the colossal textile industry of the city.

The story of Kanpur’s textile mills is one of bureaucratic and political insensitivity in pre-liberalisation era and one of plunder in the liberalisation age. It is also the most important example of transition of a city that was called ‘Manchester of the East’ at one time to a decadent dumping yard corrupted by communal and anti-labour politics.

Soon after the Modi government came to power Union Minister of Heavy Industries and Public Sector Enterprises Anand Geete raised hopes of workers when he announced that the government plans to revive about two-thirds of the sick industries by pumping in more money. However, none of those announcements have materialised amidst vociferous criticisms coming from powerful advocates of economic liberalisation. Today, a few private companies are sticking on to their textile mills without any interest in reviving them in the hope that the ‘land use’ of the mill land would change and they would be able to sell it off in dream prices as they are all in the heart of the town. In Lal Imli, the clock tower is the only asset that seems to be working now. The only remnant of the city’s rich textile history are the major roads and junctions of the city which are named after the once-vibrant mills. Behind these junctions, however, mill workers’ colonies reflect only a picture of decadence and penury.