They had lost their jobs, most of them lost their homes, their children lost their future and when Union Minister Smriti Irani ruled out the possibility of reviving the textile mills in Kanpur, thousands of the mill workers lost their hopes.The once thriving textile industry in Kanpur is now almost defunct. The factory buildings that started with manufacturing army blankets in 1876 now stand silently, staring at despair."During the election campaign, the BJP had promised us that they would work out a revival package for the textile mills but Irani's statement has dashed all hopes. There is still a great deal of potential for textile business in Kanpur but the ruling party obviously wants Gujarat to remain a leader in the business," said R.K. Agarwal who owns a ready-made garment shop in the upscale Mall Road.The Central government 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 central government undertakings.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 J.K. 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 mills 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 five per cent of its capacity and remains a ghost of its past with its gigantic but dilapidated building, broken windows, and old machinery.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.Ali Khan, a textile worker employed with the now defunct Elgin Mills, runs a tailoring shop to earn a square meal for his family."When the mill shut down in the 1990s, we waited for it to reopen. Once the savings were exhausted, I had to look for options and since my wife knew tailoring, I started a tailoring shop in my house. Slowly I also learnt tailoring and today we can manage a square meal. My two sons have moved to Delhi where they work for a cab company," he says.There are many reasons for the failure of the industries in Kanpur, one of them being the inability of the industries to adapt to the technological changes and the market changes. Labour trouble was fuelled by political parties that supported trade unionism and industrialists gradually lost interest in remaining in Kanpur. Subsidiary business moved to Ahmadabad, Noida and Gurugram.Erratic power supply made business economically unfeasible and by the 2000s, the textile business had almost shut down.
A senior official in the Lal Imli company, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "More than economy, it was political apathy that killed the textile industry here. Political parties that came to power in Uttar Pradesh in the 1990s conveniently turned a blind eye to the problems and one after another, the textile units shut down. "The failure of industries has had a bad impact on the lives of the working class of the city. Most of them moved out of the city in search of employment and those who remained suffered further. There was no work for them now and many of them had to take up other professions like vegetable vendors, scrap dealers, tailors etc."Kanpur, once known as the 'Manchester of the East', used to send goods to the rest of the country but the death of the textile units turned it into a dump yard for consumer goods."Prominent mills in Kanpur included Victoria Mills, Muir Mills, Laxmi Ratan Cotton Mills, J.K. Mills, Elgin Mills, Dhariwal Mills among others.Senior residents of Kanpur have stories that chronicle the journey of textile industries.Arthur Fernandes, an octogenarian who once worked in the Muir Mills, said: "The first signs of sickness in the textile industry became visible after 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 a result of declining investments towards modernisation of the mills. "When the owners started incurring losses, they callously shut down their units putting the lives of around 1 lakh workers in jeopardy."It was then that the Central government 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 needs of the army and police.The first mill to be nationalised was Victoria Mills in 1971, followed by others.The nationalisation of textile units turned out to be an ill-fated decision because of mismanagement that started at this juncture. While initial years of nationalisation saw a good growth in production, by the 1980s, the industry 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.Daulat Ram, then Vice Pesident of UP committee of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) , who passed away in 2014, had then blamed the contractor-administration-politician nexus and heavy duty corruption resulting in fudging of profit figures for the decline in the industry.A retired manager of the Elgin Mills blamed the state bureaucracy for pushing the textile industry to closure."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," he contended.A visit to Kanpur today shows that the city is still dotted with ghost mills, most of them plastered with political slogans and posters. The chimneys no longer emit smoke and machines are silent. Hope also lies crumbled at their locked gates.