Untold lives blog

10 posts from July 2015

07 July 2015

A bread and butter battle

The lives of Indian industrial workers were described as ‘a bread and butter battle’ in an obituary for Sir Vithaldas D Thackersey in the Bombay Labour Gazette for August 1922. It evokes a pitiful struggle for survival but the obituary and other articles in the Labour Gazette reveal that at least some industrialists were moving towards reform. Honoured as one of Bombay’s foremost mill owners, Thackersey was said to have attached great importance to education for industrial workers.

  Labour Gazette heading
Labour Gazette (Bombay), 1921-22  

IOR/V/25/670/1    Noc

Statistics for Chaupati, a ‘better class’ area,  the ‘typical slum’ at Umerkhadi and the mill area of Parel show striking differences, with literacy being lowest in the mill area. The Chairman of the Bombay Mill Owners’ Association spoke at their annual meeting of the importance of education. ‘Most of our troubles economically and industrially can I think to a great degree be put down to illiteracy and the migratory habits of our workpeople, and education would help to solve our problem, but though much has been said about compulsory primary education, I am afraid Government are a long way off even making a commencement in this direction, so the social conditions of our employees must be improved by welfare work.’

Ginning Factory-India-1926
Female labourers in Ginning Factory, India, 1926 Images Online
Photo 703(22)   Noc

Health was studied in the same three Bombay districts as literacy and again there were striking differences, with respiratory illnesses unsurprisingly causing a much higher rate of mortality in the slum and mill districts than that experienced in the ‘better class’ area. Overcrowded housing was highlighted as a major cause of adult and infant mortality. The President’s address to a welfare conference in 1922 describes the infant mortality in the industrial towns as ‘almost heart-breaking’.

Infant mortality Oct 1921
Labour Gazette (Bombay), Oct 1921
IOR/V/25/670/1    Noc

The overcrowding in Bombay was certainly striking, as according to a note in the August 1922 edition, there was only one building for every 22.3 persons in Bombay city and in Ahmedabad for every 6.2 persons. Interestingly, the overcrowding in Bombay was described as ‘far worse’ than in London. Improving housing conditions in Bombay was a top priority for the Government and it was engaged in an ambitious construction programme to build 50,000 tenements which were expected to house 250,000 people, amounting to about one fifth of the population of Bombay City. It seems that slow steps were being taken to follow Lady Tata’s exhortation to ‘treat the working man and the working woman as human beings’. She urged that ‘It is the duty of employers to place them in such conditions of living, as will enable them to give of their best to the industry, in the service of their country, and it is the duty of the employees to take advantage of all the good things provided for them and to give of their best in return to their employers.’ Many good intentions were expressed and the extent of progress is no doubt documented in subsequent editions of the Labour Gazette which is crammed with information about welfare, wages, the cost of living, industrial disputes and all matters pertaining to employment.

Penny Brook
Head of India Office Records         Cc-by

Further reading IOR/V/25/670/1-34  Labour Gazette (Bombay) 1921-1956

Other blogs about working life:

Buffoons, ear-pickers and sherbet-sellers

A most depressing read

Honest and industrious – petitions to the East India Company

02 July 2015

Herabai and Mithibai Tata: British support for Indian suffragists

In the second half of 1919, three Indian women, Sarojini Naidu, Herabai Tata and Mithibai Tata, were in London to address the Government as final readings of the 1919 Government of India Bill were being put through Parliament. They travelled to Britain to urge the Government to remove the sex disqualification that explicitly excluded women in India from the franchise.

Mother and daughter, Herabai and Mithibai Tata, were from Bombay and were on their first visit to Britain. They toured the country meeting with various women’s groups looking for support and advice. Their statement ‘Why Should Women Have Votes?’, sent to the India Office on 25 September 1919, laid out a number of reasons for Indian women to have the vote:

It has been recognised now in all countries that the sex barrier has been a grave mistake, is out of date, unworthy of the times, a relic of past days when might was above right … Why should India lag behind others in this respect and create a sex barrier where one does not exist, and thus brand Indian women as inferior to their sisters in other countries.

  Statement ‘Why Should Women Have Votes?'
IOR/L/PJ/9/8, File 267/19 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In their support, as might be expected, the main women and suffrage organisations in Britain, the Women’s Freedom League, the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship and the National Council of Women of Great Britain and Ireland sent letters and resolutions to the India Office. However, the India Office soon became inundated with letters of support from individuals and local associations across the breadth of Britain.

They included resolutions from three different groups in Glasgow. The Study Circle, Glasgow, sent the following on 17 September 1919:

That this meeting, approving of the principle of equality in the citizenship of men and women, urges that, in the Government of India Bill, women having the same qualifications as men should be included in the franchise proposals; so that popular government in India may start without any sex disability.

  Resolution from The Study Circle
IOR/L/PJ/9/8, File 267/19 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

 

The Tatas then went up to Scotland and engaged in an impromptu meeting that led to the following resolution sent on 24 November 1919:

That this meeting of Glasgow Citizens approves the principle of the extension of the franchise to Indian women as well as to the men of India, and asks that they shall be included on the same terms as men, in the franchise proposals being considered in the Government of India Bill.  

Similar resolutions were sent between September and December 1919 from the Glasgow Society for Women’s Suffrage, a public meeting of Newcastle citizens, the Huddersfield, Bristol and Manchester branches of the Women’s International League, the Liverpool Council of Women Citizens, the Cardiff Branch of the Britain and India Association, the Letchworth and Swansea branches of the Women’s Freedom League and the New Cross Branch of the National Co-operative Men’s Guild among many others.

These petitions were unsuccessful as the Government of India Bill did not include women into the franchise, but the Government did concede autonomy to Indian provinces to enfranchise women, which they started to do from 1921.


Sumita Mukherjee
King’s College London

Further reading:
IOR/L/PJ/9/8, File 267/19 - Representations etc relating to Franchise for Women in India under the Reforms Scheme (1918-1919)