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19 January 2007

From mills to malls

Phoenix Mills

Phoenix Mills. Image source: Paul Ancheta

RIDING PAST the sprawling Phoenix Mills complex in south Mumbai, my driver Santosh announced that his father worked at a cotton mill for thirty years. “He was boss [supervisor] in that big mill,” he said, “until the strike happened.” Santosh was referring to a milestone that began exactly 25 years ago, when a quarter million workers at over 50 textile mills in the city went on strike to demand a better future. It ended in failure eighteen months later. The city’s 128 year-old mill industry began to close shop; the workers lost their jobs and, for most of them, the future that the strike was all about. Santosh’s father was one of them.

I asked Santosh to stop the car at the foot of the flyover bridge outside Phoenix Mills, and stared at the round chimney towering within the complex. It was part of the original Phoenix Mills—in fact, it may be the only thing left of a facility that helped make Bombay's textile milling one of Asia's busiest manufacturing industries during the twentieth century. Those were the days when citizens in Bombay seemed to have a fair share of the right to earn and sustain a living.

Today, the chimney stood decrepit yet proud of a romantic heritage of industrial might. Circling it are swanky retail spaces and banners of international brands. Farther down the road, high-rise commercial towers are rising up on hundreds of acres of land that once housed other mills. Real estate experts estimate that this land is worth an estimated USD 2 billion at today's prices. The high rise has replaced the chimney as a postcard image of a modernized city.

The transition from chimney to high rise is sharp and almost harsh. I can imagine how painful it must have been for the mill’s workforce to see the abrupt transition, as they now had to contend with a service sector that was rapidly growing and required a completely different skill set. But sudden and dramatic change is constant. We cannot keep ourselves away from it. We move on with it and adapt to contemporary realities as part of our continuing evolution as human beings.

The experience at Phoenix Mills has made me appreciate once more what Bahá’u’lláh, the Prophet Founder of the Bahá'í Faith, refers to when He declares that, just as lesser living things have times of sudden emergence into new and fuller life, so for mankind also a “critical stage,” a time of “rebirth,” is at hand.

Related Site: Phoenix Mills—Because the Story Must Be Told

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