“This pandemic has made me completely handicapped,” said Zaheer Shaikh*, who migrated to Mumbai from Sultanpur in Uttar Pradesh 30 years ago. “My world is over…I have Rs 7 lakh-Rs 8 lakh pending in payments in the market. Small people are no longer left capable to do business.”

Shaikh runs a small gala or industrial unit that provides finishing and laundry facilities for newly manufactured jeans. After working as a karigar or skilled craftsman for several years, in 2004 he set up his own industrial unit in Khairani Road in Sakinaka, an area of northern Mumbai in which thousands of galas or small workshops are located.

Since the lockdown was imposed on March 25 to contain the spread of the coronavirus, work at Shaikh’s unit has completely stopped. In addition, his vendors, colloquially known as “party walas”, owe him more Rs 7 lakh for orders completed before the lockdown. The absence of paperwork documenting the transaction means that Shaikh might have to forfeit this money. Even if orders were to start again, he isn’t sure how he’d fulfil them: only three of the 12 workmen he employed before lockdown are still in the city.

The paradox of density

The density of homes and manufacturing units in neighbourhoods like Khairani Road has proved to be a paradox, Though there is little evidence that neighbourhoods like this were more susceptible to the virus than more affluent neighbourhoods, the concentration of people has been blamed for the high spread of the coronavirus in the city. But when it comes to economic survival, density is one of the main factors that ordinarily allows Khairani Road to operate: neighbourhoods like this often house an entire supply chain for some products.

Employers use the proximity of units – and homes – to save transport costs and develop relationships of trust (pehchaan) with others, which is crucial in an informal assembly line that operates without written contracts.

For instance, it is not uncommon for a pair of jeans to be stitched and its various parts assembled by a series of galas on the same road in this area. One karigar in a garment unit stitches the raw fibre, another assembles buttons, a home-based worker might trim the loose ends (dhaga) off the cloth, and a fourth unit, like Zaheer Shaikh’s, washes and presses the item.

Industrial-residential neighbourhoods such as this one in Sakinaka are common across Mumbai. Credit: Maansi Parpiani

This isn’t to say the system is fair. Employers on Khairani Road who produce and process items such as garments, metal pipes and automobile parts run on margins as low as Re 1-Rs 2 per piece. Most often, the costs are borne by the migrant workers they employ in the form of low wages, 12-hour days and hazardous conditions created by second-hand machines and working in galas perpetually at the risk of lethal fires.

Samir Khan, who ordinarily employs 11 workers to manufacture carrom boards and other sporting goods, argued that this is the only way employers like him can survive. “No one, whether he is doing recycling or trade work, can afford anything except a 10 by 15 [square feet] room around Khairani Road at the end of the day,” said Khan. “If you ask anyone what the dirtiest, most dense area is in Sakinaka, they will all point to where we live and work. Every seth [employer] owns his own business, but the moment he starts living like a seth, half his business will sink.”

With lockdown, employers have continued to pay the rents for their work units even as their incomes have disappeared. Nafiz Mohammed* and his father have been running a jeans processing gala for 16 years and has to rent a unit that is larger than average because their operation requires a tall boiler machine to wash the cloth. This requires them to pay Rs 40,000 a month.

Though work has been stalled since March, Mohammed owes his landlord Rs 1.2 lakh for the past three months“The landlord has already called me three or four times during the lockdown,” Mohammed said. “And it is not that he is saying pay 50%. He wants the full amount.”

Samir Khan has asked his landlord to deduct his monthly rent of Rs 20,000 from the Rs 1 lakh deposit he had paid when he started his lease. “The day that is exhausted, let him kick us out of here,” he said. “We will run away somewhere else – what else can we do?”

Providing for workers

It isn’t just the debt burden that have restricted the ability of these small entrepreneurs to restart business post-lockdown – supply chains have broken down as has the availability of labour. “Even if I were to get orders now, how am I supposed to source the raw materials?” Khan said. “The carrom board nets…it was usually women workers who used to stitch these at home. Now I just can’t find it in the market, as those women have gone back to their villages.”

He has also run out of wood, which he used to source in bulk. When he ordered polish from his supplier, he was told to pay Rs 140 per litre instead of the usual Rs 90 with GST.

Reviving such enterprises will depend on the relationship marginal employers have with migrant workers and whether they will return. As a result,for many employers, providing adequately for workers during the lockdown was important, particularly for those businesses that require skilled labourers.

“I told the workers, until the gas I provided works, use it,” said Khan, whose handmade carrom boards required skilled work. “If you have no way to cook food, burn the industrial-grade wood. But you must not go hungry.?

Industrial galas manufacture and recycle various kinds of metal. Credit: Raghav Mehrotra

In the complete absence of state assistance, Nafiz Mohammed took a loan from a relative to pay for food for his workers. It is more likely that they would return to work for an employer who had addressed their needs during the lockdown.

Along with several other marginal employers on Khairani Road, Mohammed was unimpressed by the loans for Medium and Small Enterprises offered by the government to help revive an economy hurt by Covid-19. “I have already taken loans to pay for consumption during the lockdown,” he said. “If I take another one, I will have to repay that too.” In the absence of work and income, taking more loans didn’t seem like a sustainable solution to his problems, he said.

The products that these units make, after being processed and distributed by a range of intermediaries, end up in retail stores run by large corporations and brands. Yet, these actors and their profit margins are kept opaque. While many big industries have come forward with donations and relief material, a post-Covid recovery would need to ensure transparent supply chains beyond Khairani Road that redistribute profits to the lowest level.

In addition, the state must ensure that industry is also held accountable for failing to pay wages because workers cannot bargain with marginal employers – not only because of fear of losing their livelihood, but also because such employers rarely have the capacity to pay large sums.

Without these reforms, urban economies risk the closure of a vibrant business and employment generation market that subsidises broader supply chains of manufacturing and production across the city and country.

*Names changed at the request of the interview subjects.

Raghav Mehrotra and Maansi Parpiani work at Aajeevika Bureau, a non-profit that provides support to seasonal migrant labourers in Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Maharashtra. They would like to thank Deepak Paradkar, Manoj Gupta and Prashant Nandavadekar of Aajeevika Bureau (Mumbai) for conducting the telephonic interviews with employers, and Aarushee Shukla, Prarthana Puthran and Yamini Kumar for transcription and documentation support.

A time of unprecedented social suffering and uncertainty, Covid-19 serves as a moment of crisis as well as possibility for making urban policy differently. This article is part of an eight-part series that seeks to address the question of how the pandemic could be used to transform Mumbai into a more inclusive, resilient city. Read the other articles here.