Very 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 and 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, they disgorge hundreds of villagers. These are mostly young women, who disappear into the large factory complexes lurking behind imposing, fortified gates, entirely masking the view inside. 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 village homes.
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 here 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 the past two decades, Tirupur’s growth has been exponential, rising from annual export revenue of INR 750 million in 1987 to more than INR 110 billion last year. In more ways than one, Tirupur has largely 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. In the local construction 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 in 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 as well, 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 in that same period. Decades later, during the 1970s and 1980s, Western retailers began to arrive, scouting for cheaper production sources – and they found that Tirupur was ready. It has always been a city that responds to challenge with innovation.
Local legend credits Ghulam Kader with having been the first of Tirupur’s entrepreneurs. Back in those days, during the 1920s, Kader would not have had an inkling of the town’s eventual success, as he began knitting banians (cotton vests) in his backyard. For years thereafter, Tirupur did just that – made banians, while also ginning cotton from the surrounding fields. At that time, the town was a minor stop en route to the Coimbatore mills, 60 km away.
As is true of so much of corporate wealth, Tirupur was able to build upon the spoils of war. The Second World War saw a spiralling demand for cheap cotton wear, which could not be solely 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 miniscule 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 mere 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 Hindostani, but at a pinch you can just as easily trade in Oriya or Kannada or Punjabi. After all, the buyers come from all over, and it is a lucrative, hassle-free business. There is no credit, no bills – all just cash-and-carry in the real sense.
Walk in to any clothing chain store in London or Los Angeles, and you will be spoiled for choice, also because the price for clothes on retail shelves has been falling for years. Some estimate that in the UK alone such prices have dropped up to 50 percent over the past decade. But even as volumes replace margins, profits and dividends are soaring. When the global business press publishes lists of those CEOs who have made the heftiest profit-linked bonuses, without fail they are the pashas of the retail trade. This has coincided with the boom in garment production in India, China, Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia. The reasons for these massive paycheques are obvious, as are the real costs to those involved lower down in this sector.
For starters, 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 trundle alongside the workers’ buses every day in their journey down the thoroughfares of Tirupur, having mined their loads from water ‘hotspots’ huge 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 to its credit: the first town in India to get its water from a private company – or, rather, from a public-private partnership (see box).
This distinction is rather dubious, since 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.
Indeed, 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 upon millions of litres of toxic effluent into the river, which once led a local wag to comment that the colour of the Noyyil’s waters changed according to the latest fashions in the West. This toxic rot 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 Madras government has long been extremely tolerant of the state’s polluting industries, especially if they are big revenue earners. In December 2004, the Madras High Court appointed a Loss of Ecology Authority, to examine the losses suffered by farmers as a result of industrial pollution in different parts of the state. The following year, the Authority imposed a fine of INR 248 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 are 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, certainly, is globalisation.
This anxiety goes both ways. In his plush office on the outskirts of Tirupur, presiding over more than INR 10 billion worth of garments exports every year, a local entrepreneur explains that commercial relationships mean little in this globalised world. For all intent and purpose, 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 recently 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. In recent months, the work has become so hectic that Senthil sometimes clocks a hundred-plus miles a day in his battered Omni, just doing deliveries and pick-ups. Indeed, the workload has become so heavy that he has reached out to women beyond Tirupur, in towns as far away as Gobbichettipalayam, 50 km distant. On this day, he was paying the women 12 rupees 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 several other matters, including his personal rationale for his work. His best defence, he claimed, 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 any exit option. Such is the innovative capabilities of corporate recruitment strategy in a parlous time of labour shortage.
In the last few years, indigent villagers in the poorer southern districts of Tamil Nadu – Sivaganga, Theni, Tirunelveli – have been the target audience of a focused 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 a factory campus, at the end of which they get a lump sum, usually around INR 30,000, supposedly for their dowry or marriage expenses.
This scheme has an evocatively seductive 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 offer up 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.
1000 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 within the garment industry. 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 he reports being offered a good sum of money for the girls he could bring in – up to 1000 rupees a head.
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 differing 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, outside of a list of 60 occupations considered too hazardous. This disconnect allows employers obvious shelter by fudging categories. When investigated, however, the consequences are sometimes severe: recently, the Gap, the international clothing brand, was forced to recall products made in an Indian factory after a media exposé about the prevalence of child labour at the workshops owned by one of its subcontractors. These dramatic moves rest largely on the 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 companies’ management to circumvent even the meagre labour-protection statutes that do exist. There are many savings to be made by under-reporting the actual 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 daily wages or piece rates. Security for the employee is still a distant dream.
Ravindran himself, however, maintains records industriously. Poring over 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, she was in the ninth grade when her aunt tempted her with an offer of work in a textile factory. She was promised INR 30,000 if she worked for three years, in addition to a monthly allowance of 750 rupees. On arrival, she found herself in a tiny room with six other girls, all of whom lived on the premises. They were fed three times a day, and at the end of the month two-thirds of the allowance was taken away for that food. Even with 300 rupees left for toiletries and other incidentals, however, they did not even have the semblance of an outdoor excursion to purchase these; rather, they were forced to buy them from a shop on the premises.
When she signed on to work at the factory, Manisha says that 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 reported being sick very often and losing 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 a kindly auto driver, who brought 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”. Manisha’s eloquence is admirable but rare. In the midst of all of the commotion being created about India Inc, 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.
Tirupur’s public-private partner-ship essentially means that the state has funded private profit in the garb of the public good. It uses the shortage of drinking water as a justification to deliver industries’ needs. Bolstered by a USD 1.25 billion guarantee from the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the state government created the Tamilnadu Water Investment Company during the mid-1990s, which in turn promoted an entity known as the New Tirupur Area Development Corporation Ltd (NTADCL). This body then constructed a pipeline from Tirupur all the way to the confluence of the Kaveri and Bhavani rivers, 55 km away. Here, it sank various pieces of suction equipment, in an effort to deliver 185 million litres of water per day to a treatment plant, which in turn would pump the water to a series of towering storage tanks. These reservoirs would finally assure local industry 100 million litres of water every day, while the town would, purportedly, get the rest. This is the plan, anyway, but the scheme is not in full implementation yet, with domestic supply lines still being expanded. As such, the wealthier neighbourhoods in Tirupur receive water for four hours a day, and the rest with significantly less frequency. Meanwhile, everyone pays almost double for their water than do the people in nearby Coimbatore, despite the fact that water for domestic use in Tirupur is supposed to be subsidised by the area’s industry. In this way, taxpayer money is being used to bring water to a parched town, the lion’s share of which is going directly to the factories. Over the past three years, the NTADCL has variously slashed, hiked and revised the water tariff on multiple occasions, but only ever with regards to the industrial consumers. The Corporation claims that there has not been enough business from the industries, but even so domestic supply hours have not gone up. Where is the rest of the water? Consider the irony at work here: the NTADCL laments that industry does not consume enough water, so they cut prices. The people then pay double of what they once did, and only receive water for four hours a day. Roopa Madhav, a legal researcher in the New Delhi office of the International Environment Law Research Centre, has argued that once control has been ceded to private interests, regulatory agencies have had great difficulty imposing controls on how such projects go forward. NTADCL has proven to be no exception to this. While there is no public information put out by the company, NTADCL does not even have a public information officer. It has also been suspiciously reticent in responding to requests for information about the project. The whole situation is, of course, a reflection of what is happening elsewhere in the world. Globally, the water-privatisation industry is worth USD 400 billion – a third more than the massive pharmaceutical industry. In the US alone, private water companies enjoy revenues double that of Microsoft’s global turnover. And, as with the international frustration over Microsoft’s domination, there is today only a small cartel of giant corporations that controls the business, including Suez and Vivendi of France, and Thameswater of the UK. According to a study by the International Committee of Investigative Journalists, these massive businesses now provide drinking water – at a profit – in 56 countries.
~ S Gautham is a researcher and producer of documentaqry films, based in Gurgaon, Haryana. He currently holds a WISCOMP scholar of Peace Media fellowship, 2007Media fellowship, 2007