Pondicherry was once the hub of cotton textiles. The district was home to three famous textile mills that employed more people than the Union Territory (UT) government.
The Swadeshi Cotton Mill was established as early as 1828, while the Bharathi Textile Mill was established in 1892. After the departure of the French, the two factories were taken over by the National Textile Corporation until the government of Pondicherry. took them back in 2005. However, the closure of both factories was announced in September 2020.
The third company, Rodier Mill, which was headquartered in London, was established in 1898. It was renamed Anglo-French Textiles (AFT) in 1955 and operated until 1983 when the owner of the factory decided to close it. The Pondicherry government took over the factory in 1986 and ran it until Cyclone Thane hit UT in December 2011.
NewsClick visited Pondicherry and interacted with former factory workers to learn why once-popular textile factories have closed and what this means for UT.
AFFECTED BY LIBERALIZATION
Centennial mills accumulated losses at the end of the 20th century and the government of Pondicherry tried to keep them in operation by pouring money into them to pay the employees. Worker unrest was cited as one of the main reasons for the losses. However, former employees and trade unionists have an alternative version to share.
The Puduvai Factory Workers’ Union says the factories were actually reaping profits, but mismanagement and corruption led to losses. He says the liberalizing policies of the Congress-led government in the 1980s were instrumental at this.
Machinery waste in the closed premises of the AFT factory
Subramaniyan, the former general secretary (1986 to 1992) of the union, said that under the government led by Rajiv Gandhi, a political decision was taken to fully privatize the cotton mills. However, it was not easy as the factories operated on profits.
“The mills have received international orders, and they brought currency for the country. The AFT plant even received the President’s Award. In addition, the water of Pondicherry was good for dyeing fabrics, and he even received a medal for quality. However, the management fostered corruption by purchasing raw materials, machinery and spare parts, which resulted in losses,” he said.
The mills were showing losses on their balance sheets and the Center had granted loans sustain their. In this way, under pressure from the Union government, the mills were gradually slaughtered, he added.
“In a study conducted by the South Indian Textile Research Association (SITRA), an organization based in Coimbatore, losses due to worker protests were found to be minimal,” he said.
Anglo French Textiles (AFT) was a private factory, and in its heyday, it was the largest factory in Pondicherry. It was considered the backbone of UT’s economy, and it has gained recognition in European markets.
The neglected AFT factory campus
In 1983, when the owner of the factory decided to close it, the Indian government took possession of the factory under the Acquisition and Transfer of Textile Businesses Act 1985 and handed it over to the government of Pondicherry.
AFT closed in 1982 following labor unrest that lasted four years, until the factory reopened in 1986. The factory was an integral part of the culture of the Pondicherry district.
Subramanian said: “The protests have become a mass movement. If the Rajini or Kamal fan clubs held a meeting, they would pass a resolution to reopen the Rodier mill. This created a big impact on the politics of Pondicherry, where the ruling party realized that they could only win the next elections if the factory was reopened.
Elumalai, who retired from the AFT after working there for 41 years, said: “At the time, factory workers received more pay than government employees. I am very upset that the factory is closed because we have missed job opportunities for future generations.
Murugan, who was fired from the AFT factory, said: “I had joined the factory in 1990. I have service until 2027 (he joined at age 23). But they closed the factory in 2012, following Cyclone Thane”.
He said: “When the factory was not working, strangers entered the premises to dismantle the machines and took them out by trucks. Management was a mute spectator. Apparently, the president had ordered the removal of the machines. Machines worth millions of rupees were lost”.
AFT mill without the machines
“They said they would settle our balance within three months, but we haven’t received anything for two years”.
Murugan worked in the weaving department of AFT. Since he lost his work, he set up a tea room opposite the mill.
Although the factory has not been in operation since 2012, its closure was not officially announced until April 2020.
When the AFT plant closed, it had only 600 workers, while at its peak it employed 16,000 workers.
Reluctant to reopen the mills
Two years after the closure of the three mills, the people of Pondicherry still hope that the mills will be reopened and pave the way for job opportunities.
“Even today, at a minimum cost of Rs 500 crore, around 10,000 to 12,000 people can find employment. But a Legislative Assembly building of Rs 300 crore is sanctioned by the central government for only 33 MPs to sit and speak,” Subramaniyam said.
The void AFT factory building, where thousands of people used to work
“When we call on the Chief Minister, Rangasamy, he asks “where is the money? The government borrows money from the World Bank for many projects. But there is no money for these mills which attract foreign currency and are closely linked to the culture and economy of Pondicherry,” he said.
“In addition, the commodity market, such as cotton cultivation, also improves and develops the rural economy. Industries that sell textiles will also grow. tailoring, dyeing and other micro, small and medium enterprises,” Subramanian added.
Balachandran, a former AFT factory worker, said: “We are in this situation because of government reluctance. We really hope they open the mills.