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.
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.’
Female labourers in Ginning Factory, India, 1926 Images Online
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’.
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.
Further reading IOR/V/25/670/1-34 Labour Gazette (Bombay) 1921-1956
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