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Thursday, June 24, 1999

`Uncool' Lower Parel is hip shakers' & movers' new mecca

Nandini Ramnath  
MUMBAI, June 23: The list of pin codes where Mumbai's happening pleasure haunts are located has a new entry: 400013. These days, the swank cars heading out of south Mumbai and suburbs are converging in the centre of the city, at the Bowling Company at Phoenix Garden City, Lower Parel.

The Company, which also has a pool joint and a sports bar, is destination next for those who can afford it. Once the vehicles turn off Senapati Bapat Marg into the centre, it's easy to forget that the alley is in a mill district. Inside the company, launched only in May, business looks good, with around 2,000 crowding the 20 lanes by evening. Also on the anvil are a jazz cafe, multiplex theatre, video arcade, food cafes, creche and laser games. At the back of the 30,000 sq feet plot are some weaving units of what was Piramal Mills.

The developers behind the Rs nine-crore project, the Ruias, see no contradiction in plonking a pleasuredome in a stretch choc-a-block with chimneys, chawls and trade union offices. This locationis just right, says restauranter A D Singh, one of the developers. ``The singular reason why Lower Parel is becoming the city's hottest entertainment destination is because of availability of space at affordable rates in an accessible location,'' he says. Singh also hints that some other mills might be setting up entertainment centres as well but is coy about giving details.

A new chapter is being appended to the history of Lower Parel, which was rewritten in the early nineties when textile mills began selling land ostensibly to generate funds for redevelopment. The smoke from the chimneys may never have risen skywards again; what did were spanking new offices, residential complexes and even an art gallery. The leader of the pack was Phoenix Mills, where a fire in September 1977 destroyed entire spinning units. ``A change of user was allowed in 1984 to construct residential and commercial complexes,'' says Anjan Warde, architect on the project. Instead of soot stacks, Phoenix Towers was to rise out of theashes.

Commercial space in the area is around Rs 7,000-7,500 per sq feet as compared to Rs 20,000 in Nariman Point. And textile mill land togs up to a whopping 24 lakh square feet. Even as mill workers continue to agitate demanding that their wages be paid and the mills revived, the development continues. Thirty-six of the 54 mills are sick, and as of now, permission to sell land at 37 mills, including 19 run by the National Textile Corporation, is pending approval. The number of mill workers has shrunk to 48,000 from around 2.5 lakh in 1980-81.

``This change will not lead to local employment. Rather, it will set up a clash between two cultures, two classes. Ultimately, one will have to give way. No prizes for guessing who,'' says Datta Iswalkar. His father migrated here from the Konkan in 1947, and Iswalkar's childhood was played out at Saat Raasta. He still lives in the same kholi, and as secretary of the Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti, is one of the leaders of a movement that has its back against thewall.

Iswalkar observed that the children of the present generation of workers shun their parents' profession, preferring the lure of sunrise industries like pharmaceuticals. ``Coupled with no new employment, this means that there are no new workers to replenish the ones who will soon retire,'' he says.

The workers also fear they will be simply bought off by developers. Recalls Varde, ``The first reaction when Phoenix Towers was set up was, `oh no, it's a mill area'. Now, Phoenix Towers had 80 per cent occupancy. But things would have to change if more people are to move in.'' Read: The area would not just have to get more happening, but also develop supporting infrastructure. And since the municipal schools in the area will not do, Phoenix Towers has reserved area for a secondary school.

``The residents are not part of these changes; even the middle class can't afford the houses being built on mill land,'' observes Madhukar Nerale, owner of Hanuman Theatre at Lalbaug. Nerale has learnt the hard waywhat happens when economic changes take their toll on the social fabric: his tamasha theatre, which was thronged by mill workers ever since it was set up in 1948, shut in 1994. Tamasha theatres, as integral an element of Girangaon culture as the Ganeshotsav, Govinda and Holi festivals, existed at Parel, Sewri, Mazgaon, Byculla and Girgaon.

The one show every night at Hanuman Theatre was a staple upto the eighties. But the 1982 texile strike didn't just finish off several workers, it also finished off elements of the Girangaon culture. ``Here, hotels would open at 5 am to catch workers after their night shift. They would serve malpuvas, wada pav, poha, sheera...'' recalls Nerale. And mornings would buzz with the sounds of workers milling to their workplaces. These sounds have almost died out as the workforce shrank in size, he says. As did the theatre. Hanuman Theatre now serves as a wedding hall. ``I don't think Girangaon will stay this way for more than 10-15 years,'' is Nerale's gloomy prediction.A viewthat's not shared by those who wish to see the area develop in an manner that's fair to its original residents and the mill workers. ``If development is taking place in a certain direction, it is quite posible that it can take place in another direction as well. But we need political will for that,'' says architect Neera Adarkar, who, along with Arvind Adarkar and P K Das has drawn up a blueprint for the redevelopment of textile mills. Their scheme envisaged giving workers one fourth of the land to develop, and is going the rounds with the government. Till a solution is reached, Lower Parel residents will have to make an uneasy peace with their ``Upper Worli'' neighbours.

of Commerce and Economics, Haji Ali, points to evening classes as another option. The government has suggested introduction of evening classes. ``We are deliberating over the matter,'' he says.

Dr M R Kurup, principal of Vaze College, Mulund, says his college has already received about 10,000 applications vis-a-vis the 1,200 seatsavailable across the Arts, Commerce and Science faculties.

Interestingly, Deputy Director of Education, D C Deshmukh told Express Newsline that he does not forsee any deficit of seats. He claims the government has made all the necessary calculations. ``Over and above last year's capacity of 94,000-odd seats, we have opened 37 new divisions in schools with junior colleges attached. Plus we have approved five new junior colleges. Together, there will be four more divisions in Science and five in commerce, he adds. As regards evening classes, Deshmukh says they will be limited only for conducting practicals.

Either way, principals and educators say the government will simply have to place a premium on higher education.

Copyright © 1999 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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