Sunday, June 19, 2005

The "Call-Centre Economy" of Girangaon

Normally, a book review does not have a place in AlternativePerspective, but this one describes some interesting parallels, and the "unintended consequences".

The following are the excerpts from the book review - published in the June 27th issue of Business World - of One Hundred Years, One Hundred Voices: The Millworkers of Girangaon (by Meena Menon & Neera Adarkar)

"This book is compulsory reading for the white-collar class. It may have lessons for them. They work long hours, as did the despairing workers of Mumbai's textile mills. When released late in the night by dictatorial bosses, they rush to bars, as the millworkers did. Over drinks, they abuse their bosses, as the millworkers did. In Mumbai, this daily 'happening event' is called Corporate Happy Hour.

The millworkers were an important social group of Mumbai. The city's economy depended on them. They were Mumbai's first globalised class, other than opium traders. They produced goods for a global market. The textile mills of Mumbai can be described as India's first call centres. Of the blue-collar class, of course. The world was mainly a blue-collar environment then.

The workers were recruited from Mumbai's impoverished hinterland. They pioneered hinterland dual-income survival...

The mill hours were long and the work environment harsh, especially for women. The cotton fibres they inhaled were a greater health hazard than sitting for ten hours in front of a computer screen. There was no maternity leave, and they had to be back at work the day after delivery. If the workers made a mistake, the cost of the mistake was deducted from their wages...

The millworkers lived in one-room tenements (chawls) which had common corridors... Out of this sharing emerged a working class with class. The people of Girangaon were patrons of music, drama and dance, cinema, literature and circulating libraries, painting and rangoli, wit and humour. They were keen readers of newspaper editorials. Religious festivals and the arts helped them to occasionally forget their hardships and convert Girangaon into a fun place. Many artistes emerged from this milieu.

The hardships produced aspirations of a better lifestyle. Savings became important, and gold was the most secure investment and insurance against calamity. Jewellery shops and moneylender Pathans mushroomed. The millworkers provoked the immigration of the merchant class. The mass migration to Mumbai resulted in many khichdi languages. Communication was more important than correctness. The linguistic orgy and aspirations found expression in Hindi cinema, which carried Mumbainess to the rest of the country with missionary zeal. Mumbai deserves special etymological dictionaries that would attract world attention.

Mumbai's aspirations nourished the real estate business and provoked innovations in architecture, engineering, transport and communications...

...The book is about the millworkers' economic and political struggles. Angry masses attract liberators. The first liberators to promise dictatorship of the proletariat to the millworkers were communists. They failed, and were replaced by others, including the Shiv Sena and the final executioner Datta Samant. The millworkers became vote banks who were manipulated by politicians with the help of ganglords.

The millworkers lost. Mill lands became real estate assets. The closure of mills defeated men, but women became entrepreneurs. Bank loans given to Girangaon women and their savings accounts would tell a very interesting story.

One Hundred Years tells the story of the struggle objectively, interspersing it with interviews of Girangaon people who relive those times. The interviews are timeless. The exploited across the globe in the past and the future cannot say anything that is very different from what those in Girangaon have said."

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