Every morning, dozens of buses arrive with relentless regularity at the high security gates of the Netaji Apparel Park in Tirupur. This is a brand-new, spic-and-span Industrial Estate at the outer bounds of the old town. The buses come from all directions, having snaked their ways through miles of dusty village tracks, with the precise, measured tread of an army convoy ferrying soldiers to a remote war post. At their destination, their blaring klaxons temporarily silenced by the screaming wails of banshee sirens announcing the start of a work shift, they disgorge hundreds of villagers. These are mostly young women, who disappear into the large factory complexes behind imposing, fortified gates. At every gate, a visitor is liable to find a torn-off piece of cardboard carton inscribed with two prominent legends: ‘Labour Wanted’ and ‘No Child Labour’. Both are telling in their own way. The people consumed by this giant apparatus will emerge in due course – some after eight hours, but the majority after 12, perhaps 16, hours – trooping back into their allotted buses, to be ferried back to their villages.
Welcome to Tirupur, Tamil Nadu, also known variously as Knit City, T-Shirt City and sometimes even Dollar City. This is perhaps the only urban area in India with negative unemployment, with more jobs than there are people. It is for this reason that factories here are forced to haul in their workforce from as far as 60 kilometres away. Over two decades, Tirupur’s growth has been exponential, rising from annual export revenue of INR 750 million (USD 12 million) in 1987 to more than INR 110 billion (USD 1.75 billion) in 2007. In more ways than one, Tirupur has become the beacon of New India.
In a pioneering 2004 study of the town and its business triumph, Sharad Chari of the London School of Economics attributed Tirupur’s success to what he calls “Gounder toil”. The Gounders are a Tamil-speaking community of landowning peasants, whose cultural homestead is in the region of Kongunadu, in northwest Tamil Nadu. Referring to the local translation for ‘toil’, Chari uses the term ulaippu, which is distinct from the Tamil for ‘work’. He notes that the Tirupur peasant was quick to adapt first to cotton farming during the 1920s, and before long there were several flourishing Gounder estates, or thottams, feeding the spinning mills of Coimbatore. The Gounder peasants also evolved an intricate system through which to work their thottams, using both unpaid family labour and indentured Dalit workers.
The Gounders were game to get their own hands dirty, and actively took part in the labour. This work ethic coalesced into an intricate, informal, quasi-legal lending mechanism – a unique and crucial system of kinship-based venture funding. It allowed other apprentice clansmen to set up their own businesses. Migrant workers slowly became factory owners, which helped in the transition to small industry when the time was right. So much so that, when the rest of the agricultural and commodities markets collapsed during the economic depression of the 1930s, Tirupur grew by 117 percent. Decades later, during the 1970s and 1980s, Western retailers began to arrive, scouting for cheap production sources and found Tirupur ready. It has always been a city that responds to challenge with innovation.
Local legend credits Ghulambhai Kader with having been the first of Tirupur’s entrepreneurs. During the 1920s, Kader would not have had an inkling of the town’s eventual success as he began knitting baniyans (cotton vests) in his backyard. For years thereafter, Tirupur did just that – made baniyans, while also ginning cotton from the surrounding fields. At that time, the town was a minor stop en route to the Coimbatore mills, 60 kilometers away.
As is true of so much of corporate wealth, Tirupur was able to benefit from the war economy. The Second World War saw a spiralling demand for cotton wear, which could not solely be met by Ludhiana, in Punjab, which had long been a knitwear hub. The Gounder entrepreneurs of Tirupur responded with customary élan, and today the town’s watering holes resound with stories of Tirupur’s millionaire families.
Residents will tell you that anyone not destitute in the city – bootleggers and brothel keepers, actuaries and activists – has at least a tangential hand in the knitwear till. Knitwear, after all, is everywhere. In the numerous tiny lanes that branch out of Tirupur’s two or three exhaust-choked arterial roads, there is always a warren of still-narrower streets with tightly-packed houses, each one of them concealing a ‘factory’. Each of these tiny workshops plays a minor role in the value chain that delivers branded clothes to metropolitan high streets the world over.
Ghulambhai Kader is today commemorated in the caverns of a neighbourhood named after him – Kaderpet. What goes on in Kaderpet is the throbbing flipside, the bottom end of the garment business, the very heart of Indian street chic. It is from here that ‘export surplus’ clothes find their way to street stalls from Shillong to Srinagar. Kaderpet is not a large market, just a street and a half. But it is crammed with buildings, each one a cul-de-sac – some new, with names like Fancy Complex, and others abandoned ginning factories. Their display shelves spill over into the narrow streets, each one packed with an incredible array of hosiery. Here, in the heart of Tamil country, everyone is a polyglot – the language of the street is market Hindustani, but if necessary, you can just as easily trade in Oriya or Kannada or Punjabi. The buyers come from all over, and it is a lucrative, hassle-free business. There is no credit, no bills – it is all just cash-and-carry.
The apparel business is a voraciously thirsty beast. At current production capacity, Tirupur’s factories together swallow about 100 million litres of water every day. Until just a few years ago, hundreds of water tankers would travel alongside the workers’ buses every day in their journey down the thoroughfares of Tirupur, having mined their loads from water ‘hotspots’ long distances away. In the process, they dramatically decreased an already low water table. But all this is now history for T-Shirt City, which has recently notched another first: the first town in India to get its water from a private company – or, rather, from a public-private partnership.
Tirupur has always enjoyed a prime position immediately next to the river Noyyil, which for eons had water enough for all those who came to her banks. During the era of the Chola Dynasty, a sophisticated network of tanks and canals was built, but though those lasted for a millennium or more, they are now silted and decayed beyond rescue. Today, the Noyyil is indistinguishable from the municipal sewer.
The waterway is made up almost entirely of municipal waste. For several decades now, the dyeing and bleaching industries in the area have been emptying millions of litres of toxic effluent into the river, which once led a local to comment that the colour of the Noyyil’s waters changed according to the fashion trends in the West. This toxic fluid has been seeping underground as well. The groundwater is now so polluted that it is not only undrinkable, but it has been years since farmers within several miles of the Noyyil have been able to grow much of anything.
Despite this dismal state of affairs, the Chennai government has long been tolerant of the state’s polluting industries, especially if they are big revenue earners. In December 2004, the Madras High Court formed a Loss of Ecology Authority, to examine the losses suffered by farmers in different parts of the state as a result of industrial pollution. The following year, the Authority imposed a fine of INR 248 million (USD 4 million) on the bleaching and dyeing industries of Tirupur, which was to have been paid to more than 20,000 farmers. But four years later, the industries were still arguing about the money and pleading for more time. In March 2007, the companies even went on strike, protesting that they were unable to pay the fines and blaming international retail brands for wanting to keep prices low for their consumers, and dividends high for their shareholders. Such is globalisation.
This anxiety goes both ways. In his plush office on the outskirts of Tirupur, presiding over more than INR 10 billion (USD 160 million) worth of garments exports every year, a local entrepreneur explains that commercial relationships mean little in this globalised world. For all intents and purposes, he says, his operation is a compliance factory, one that follows an agreed set of norms and ‘ethical’ business practices. But he claims that his customers are constantly pushing the prices down. “Fifteen years as a supplier means no security,” he says. “They frankly tell me they will go to China if they get a five-cent advantage.”
So, one squeezes the other – a process that goes all of the way down to the bottom. In the inner lanes of Tirupur, far from the sanitised environs of the compliance factories, one can see at regular intervals groups of women carrying huge bundles of shirts to their sparse homes. There, they will add the final touches to these clothes – a set of miniature mirrors here, an intricate patch of hand embroidery there.
This writer spent a day with a man named Senthil, who makes his money by acting as a conduit – fetching clothes from the export factories and handing them out to women in the slums for finishing. Senthil sometimes clocks over a hundred miles a day in his battered Omni, just doing deliveries and pick-ups. Indeed, the workload has become so heavy that he has to reach out to women beyond Tirupur, in towns as far away as Gobbichettipalayam, 50 kilometers away. He was paying the women INR 12 (20 US cents) per shirt, despite the fact that the pattern he was handing out was so intricate that even an expert seamstress could barely do three pieces over the course of a long day.
Senthil would not say what his own margins were, though he was very candid about other matters, including the rationale for his work. His best defence was that the women are technically at liberty to refuse, or even leave – a far cry, he says, from what goes on behind the walls of many ‘modern’ factories. Senthil thus introduced me to a new, darkly subtle form of indenture: contract workers without the exit option.
In the last few years, villagers in the poorer southern districts of Tamil Nadu – Sivaganga, Theni and Tirunelveli – have been the target of an advertisement campaign. Handbills, distributed in bus stations and teashops, offer fixed-tenure jobs for young, unmarried girls. These are three-year contracts, during which time the girls receive room and board on the factory campus, at the end of which they get a lump sum, usually around INR 30,000 (USD 480), supposedly for their dowry or marriage expenses.
This scheme has an evocative title – mangalya thittam, the marriage fund, but it is better known as the sumangali, auspicious bride, scheme. Those who have been in and out, however, prefer to call it the ‘camp coolie’ scheme. This artful advertising shenanigan is meant to strike emotional chords within the intended audience, and is aided by the persuasive skills of ‘agents’ who traverse the poorer villages, concentrating particularly on the Dalit hamlets. Seduced by the hype and hard sell, and catalysed by the fiscal incentive promised, hundreds of desperate parents send their daughters. Oftentimes, the parents are even reimbursed the bus fare to the factories, where the girls are absorbed after an interview and a few medical tests.
Thousand rupees a head
“But all this is a charade. This is nothing but slavery in disguise,” says Ravindran, the director of a local organisation that rescues child labourers from the sweatshops. Over the past few years, as part of the Tirupur People’s Forum, Ravindran has managed to smuggle himself past the security cordon of several of these factories, masquerading as a recruiting agent. This was the easiest way to enter, he explains, and reports being offered a good sum of money for the girls he could bring in – up to INR 1000 (USD 16) for a person.
Ravindran insists that a lot of Tirupur factories employ child labour, but agrees that it is hard to prove. Child labour is, generally speaking, work that harms or exploits children in some way – physically, mentally or by blocking access to education. There is no universally accepted definition, however, and different definitions are used by various national and international groups. In India, there is also a dichotomy in the definition of what constitutes a ‘child’. Under the Juvenile Justice Act of 2002, a child is “a person who has not completed 18 years of age”. But the Child Labour Act of 1986 sets the minimum age to work at just 14 years, and declares 60 occupations too hazardous for children. This disconnect allows the employers to fudge categories. When investigated, however, the consequences are sometimes severe: recently, the international clothing brand Gap was forced to recall products made in an Indian factory after a media exposé about the use of child labour by one of its subcontractors. These dramatic moves rest largely on grassroots work by activists such as Ravindran.
A veteran of the garment trade, Ravindran has spent many years as a labour-welfare officer in Tirupur’s factories. Few of the companies actually include their workers on the records, choosing instead to keep them as contract labour. This allows the managements to circumvent even the meagre labour-protection statutes that do exist. There is saving to be made by under-reporting the number of employees: no provident fund, health insurance or bonuses. Due to the labour shortage, some of this is now changing, but these transformations have mostly taken the form of increased use of daily wages or piece rates. Employment security is still a distant dream.
Ravindran himself, however, maintains records industriously. Leafing through his files, which fatten by the day, Ravindran selects the personal history of a young woman named Manisha. The only daughter of a deserted mother from the village of Paraipatti in Madurai, Manisha was in the ninth grade when her aunt tempted her with an offer to work in a textile factory. She was promised a bonus of INR 30,000 (USD 480) if she worked for three years, in addition to a monthly allowance of INR 750 (USD 12). On arrival, she found herself living in a tiny room with six other girls. They were fed three times a day, but had to forego two-thirds of their allowance for that. Even with INR 300 (USD 5) left for toiletries and other incidentals, they did not often leave the premises to purchase these; rather, they were forced to buy them from a nearby shop.
When she signed on to work at the factory, Manisha says she was told that she would have to work eight hours every day. She ended up doing twice that, as well as facing the taunts and unwanted attention of men on the shop floor. Over the course of two months, she became sick very often and lost weight. When she could bear it no longer, she and a workmate fled, scaling a bathroom wall in the darkness. The two were rescued by an auto driver who was driving past, who knew enough to bring them to Ravindran’s office.
In a long and poignant essay written in Tamil for the newsletter of the Tirupur People’s Forum, Manisha beseeches all those “who may ever read this to never get entangled in such schemes, however enticing they may be”. Her eloquence is admirable but rare. In the midst of all of the commotion being created about India Inc, a shorthand for the country’s corporate sector, her words need to stand in for the voices of those girls, parents, farmers, middlemen, waterways and communities that are currently caught up in this race to the bottom.
~S Gautham is a Gurgaon-based researcher and producer of documentary films.
(Himal Southasian, February 2008)