Our `cathedrals of cotton'


DYING LEGACY: It may just be a matter of time before Mumbai's impressive industrial heritage, its mills, disappear from the skyline. PHOTO: SHASHI ASHIWAL

DYING LEGACY: It may just be a matter of time before Mumbai's impressive industrial heritage, its mills, disappear from the skyline. PHOTO: SHASHI ASHIWAL  

BRITISH conservationists, who were in Mumbai in March, have appealed to their Indian counterparts to make a case for preserving the city's derelict cotton mills which, they say, are the "grandchildren" of U.K. mills and some can even qualify for world heritage status.

Mumbai has 58 mills, 32 of which belong to private owners, while the rest have been taken over by the State several years ago when they turned "sick". They are now being redeveloped with a vengeance — torn down to make way for shopping malls and high-rise apartment and office complexes. Mumbai has some of the most expensive real estate, mainly due to speculative investment.

The Bombay Environmental Action Group has filed a case in the High Court, asking the State Government to stay the sale of mill land by both private and public owners on the ground that the government has surreptitiously reduced the area in any redevelopment of a mill earmarked for public use under the law.

In 1991, this was fixed at two-thirds of the total land occupied, but was amended a decade later to two-thirds only of the vacant land. Mumbai's mills occupy 600 acres (280 hectares) in the heart of the island city.

The British experts, who were part of a team assembled by the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism (INTBAU) in London, were impressed by the scale of the mill precinct, which has weathered a century and more in Mumbai. Most of the machinery and fittings have been manufactured in Britain; Mumbai is often described as "the Manchester of the East". They visited a large mill belonging to the National Textile Corporation, once the property of the Sassoon family.

"Mumbai possesses an incredible industrial heritage," stressed Fred Taggart, Director of the Regeneration Through Heritage Trust. "Mumbai's authorities would be short-sighted not to arrest the mills' destruction. And they would be ignoring the mill communities only at their own peril." Added Dr. Christopher Charlton of the Arkwright Society, "If Richard Arkwright was alive, he would have felt at home in your mills. What a stunning inheritance!"

In 1771, Arkwright set up the world's first cotton mill in the Derwent Valley, which was followed by others in the area. Till the 1960s, they were considered derelict sites and all but two were demolished. In 1979, when the owner of the Cromford Mill wanted to pull it down, the Arkwright Society formed a trust, consisting of mill owners, the government and Cromford locals, to revitalise the site.

"INFINITELY ADAPTABLE": "Old buildings don't have to be preserved in formaldehyde ... .' PHOTO COURTESY: RAJESH VORA

"INFINITELY ADAPTABLE": "Old buildings don't have to be preserved in formaldehyde ... .' PHOTO COURTESY: RAJESH VORA  

Since then, the trust has invested �6 million in regenerating Cromford Mill and today it enjoys UNESCO World Heritage listing. "The best thing about mill buildings is that they are remarkably flexible," Dr Charlton believed. "All structures in Cromford are let out for a range of commercial enterprises. In fact, our lessees appreciate the heritage premium. We train young people in the area — for instance, to refashion old timber — and have created 100 jobs in a poor rural area. It now attracts 1,00,000 visitors a year."

Other redeveloped British mills include Dean Clough in Halifax, a complex of 19th Century structures which housed one of the world's largest carpet factories, which has now been converted into a centre for business, arts, design and education. It occupies a million sq ft , stretches three quarters of a mile and has created 4,000 jobs. According to Sir Ernest Hall, who bought the mill over 20 years ago, the redevelopment shows that "urban pessimism has been replaced by optimism". As Taggart noted, "Old buildings don't have to be preserved in formaldehyde; they are infinitely adaptable".

Jill Channer, Director of the Prince of Wales' Phoenix Trust, which moves in "when both public and private funding fail", cited the Anchor Mills in Paisley — the town's name is linked to India because Scottish soldiers serving abroad sent back patterned shawls, which prints inspired textile design — where there were 40 buildings along the river, of which only two survive. These have been redeveloped as a mix of residential and commercial accommodation which is "selling like hot cakes". New Lanark in Scotland is another mill which has been declared a World Heritage Site and attracts 4,00,000 visitors a year.

At the INTBAU workshop, the Mumbai chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art & Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and architecture students worked out alternative plans for a National Textile Corporation mill — one of the city's erstwhile "cathedrals of cotton", as Channer described them. The first need, according to the British experts, was to evaluate the heritage of the Mumbai mills, which included the listing of artefacts and remnants of the industrial process. Tasneem Mehta of INTACH pointed out that world heritage status was only accorded to a cluster of mills, as was the case with the Derwent Valley, rather than individual examples.

All the British experts emphasised the need to put local communities at the centre of the adaptive reuse. However, there is a fundamental difference in that in the United Kingdom, mill precincts tend to be abandoned inner city or deserted rural areas, whereas in Mumbai, the mills were the predominant employer till the late 1970s, with about 2,50,000 workers in a highly congested metropolis. There are still around 30,000 left — including some who live in tenements within mill premises. Thus the numbers differ greatly and while some redevelopment in Manchester and elsewhere in Britain amounts to gentrification, such a process will prove disastrous in Mumbai, where industrial jobs are shrinking and mill hands cannot find alternative employment in the burgeoning service sector.

Mumbai-based Darryl D'Monte is Chairperson, Forum of Environmental Journalists (FEJI).

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