Bhiwandi's Textile Industry Is Struggling, and Political Apathy at Polltime Isn't Helping

Locals estimate that over 60% of power looms units have shut down, and the rest are also on the verge of closure.

Bhiwandi (Maharashtra): Each time a power loom machine was moved out of TN Textiles, 28-year-old Mahmood Ansari’s anxiety only increased. He had seen the best days of this 50-year-old, 48-machine, well-equipped textile unit, situated in one of the arterial lanes of Bhiwandi, over 30 km from Mumbai. Up until the late 1990s, the industry was booming. He is now witnessing it at its worst.

The economic slump had pushed TN Textiles’ owner to sell 24 machines to scrap dealers, downsizing the unit’s production to half. With each machine sold, at least one worker loses his job.

This crisis is the biggest issue on the minds of the voters as Bhiwandi, like the rest of Maharashtra, goes to the polls on October 21. Facing closures and joblessness, Bhiwandi’s voters had already been suffering for a few years, has been struggling because of high electricity rates, dumping by China and other factors. But demonetisation and GST have dealt a severe crippling blow for most loom owners and workers here.

Bhiwandi’s power loom industry, which once housed over 10 lakh of the total 21 lakh registered power loom machines in India, is facing one of its worst economic crises. Locals estimate that over 60% of power looms units have shut down, and the rest are also on the verge of closure.

Mahmood Ansari says he has been spending more hours at work but making much less than he made a few years ago. Most migrant workers working with him have returned to Jharkhand.

Mahmood, a resident of Bagdubi village in Jharkhand’s Dumka district, has been working in Bhiwandi for the past eight years. “I came here alone and slowly moved my family here. But in the past few years, things have got so difficult that I am in the process of sending my wife and two daughters back home,” he says. Several others from Dumka village have gone back, Mahmood adds.

Also read: A Life Measured in Metres and Yards

Most workers here are migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand; a few have moved here from the neighbouring Bihar and Odisha. About a decade ago, when the textile business was still stable, workers would manage a decent wage by working 12-hour shifts every day. “Each of them would manage three-four machines. This ensured decent production at a comfortable pace, and workers did not worry much about supporting their families,” says Atif Ansari, who owned over 225 power loom machines until a year ago but today is left with only 100 machines. “Today, each of them is burdened with multiple machines, yet the compensation is much less.”

A part of TN Textiles shut down last month after the owners were forced to sell over 24 machines to a scrap dealer.

As the business began to suffer, most migrants returned home or moved to other labour work. “We are all skilled labourers with a specific knowledge of yarn and cloth-making. But some among us are pushed to working as construction workers or take up menial jobs in garage or hardware shops,” says Mahmood’s co-worker, Ashraf Ansari. It is not just the migrant workers but also the local loom owners who have slowly shifted to smaller business; some, in a desperate situation, have moved to working in warehouses and industrial units nearby.

There have been several reasons for the death of Bhiwandi’s textile business, once known as “India’s Manchester”. But the biggest monsters that nearly killed the once-thriving textile industry in the state are the government’s unprecedented demonetisation move and the Goods and Service Tax (GST) being slapped on every step of procurement and production of grey, a kind of rough-hewn cloth, that is processed into fabric.

Also read: Handlooms Are Dying – and It’s Because of Our Failure to Protect Them

“These two decisions (demonetisation and GST) broke the backbone of our business,” says 45-year-old Ishtiyaque Ahmed Ansari, who was recently forced to sell 106 power loom machines to a scrap dealer. “One pair of machine costs anywhere between Rs 85,000 and Rs 90,000, and I sold them for Rs 36,000,” Ishtiyaque tells The Wire.

Ishtiyaque’s father had come to this 150-year-old town in 1962, from Allahabad district in Uttar Pradesh. Belonging to the traditional Bhunkar (weavers) community, his father was earlier involved in the hand loom business and had come to Bhiwandi in search of “English textiles”, common parlance for power looms.

“He started with one loom and over decades of hard work, from his generation to mine, it had grown to over 100. But now I am back to square one,” he says. During its heydays, his unit would produce 700 metres or 70 taaka cloth on a daily basis.

Ishtiyaque Ahmed Ansari had to shut down his over 60-year-old power loom business a few months ago. He owned 106 power loom machines.

Until November 2016, most business transactions here were carried out using cash. Almost 90% of loom owners and workers operated without bank accounts. Locals say it took more than a year for workers to get their bank accounts opened and for the cycle to normalise. Immediately after that, the GST was introduced. “This time we had to just shut our shops,” Atif says.

Bhiwandi looks like it is stuck in some kind of time warp. Access to this cluttered power loom centre is only through a maze of muddy roads. There is no direct railway line, and the city suffers from poor infrastructure. Lack of alternative employment opportunities is now forcing workers to travel longer distances in search of jobs. The workforce here mostly comprises men, and women have even fewer employment opportunities to explore.

Atif Ansari, a power loom owner, says the condition of mills here have never been this bad. Almost 60% power looms had to shut down in the past two years, he claims.

Muslims here look beyond the Hindu-Muslim binary but say it is their caste that has been responsible for their conditions. Ishtiyaque says most secular parties here have picked upper-caste Muslim candidates from the region, who have very little to do with the weavers’ community.

Supporting Ishtiyaque’s claims, Abdul Rashid Tahir Momin, an ex-MLA from the region and a senior Congressman, says lack of representation of the weavers’ community in both parliament and the state assembly is one of the primary reasons for Bhiwandi’s fall. “You look at both the Centre and the state, you won’t find a single representative from the weaving community. From Bhiwandi, which is a hub of the textile industry, only three times (of them, Tahir was nominated twice and he won once) an Ansari or a Momin was nominated as a party candidate. It matters a lot who represents us and who is willing to take up our issue in the assembly and parliament,” Tahir says.

Also read: The Threads of India’s Handloom Industry Are Being Gnawed Away at By GST

Tahir, a two-time MLA, was hopeful to secure a Congress ticket this year but the party chose Shoeb Ashfaque (Guddu), an upper-caste Muslim candidate instead. In the Bhiwandi West constituency, of the total 2.7 lakh voters, 1.35 lakh are Muslims, and among them 71,800 are from the Ansari and Momin communities.

“You look at the number of times questions from Bhiwandi have been raised in the parliament. Our local MP Kapil Patil says he doesn’t get the textile issue and doesn’t speak of it in the parliament,” says Shafiq Momin, a local. In the last five years, the only questions raised by Patil from the region, so far, have about the direct train connecting Bhiwandi with Mumbai. In assembly, there have not been any concerns raised in the last BJP tenure.

Power loom machines stacked together at one of the sheds. They will be sold at a throwaway price to a scrap dealer.

In Bhiwandi West and Bhiwandi East seats, incumbent MLAs Mahadeo Chougule of the BJP and Rupesh Mhatre of the Shiv Sena are seeking re-elections. In Bhiwandi (Rural), sitting MLA Shantaram More of the Shiv Sena is trying for another term. The BJP-Shiv Sena combine has relied heavily on non-Muslim voters in the region and managed a marginal win in all three seats.

“No one has bothered to come to us in the past five years. They did not come when our businesses collapsed or when our units shut down. And if they come to us for votes, we will chase them off,” Dastagir Ansari, a 75-year-old, small-time mill owner said, without revealing much about his preferred party.

All images by Sukanya Shantha.