In the years of the Great Depression, the Indian textile industry was partially protected under the regime of imperial preference, Production for the home market expanded, but there was hardly any investment in new machinery. Moreover, India had no textile machine industry of its own. During the Second World War, no machinery could be imported, but the mills worked around the clock under the regime of government procurement. By the end of the war, spindles and looms were worn out and mill-owners would have liked to have invested in new machinery. However, foreign exchange was scarce as India had no immediate access to its reserves accumulated in the Bank of England. At this stage something happened which had terrible consequences for the future of the Indian textile industry. Mahatma Gandhi had compelled the Indian government to abolish the food-grain controls introduced during the war. Prices fell after the controls had been abolished – as Gandhi had predicted. His followers then tried to apply the same rule to cotton texiles, which had also been subjected to controls. The mill-owners warned the government that they would not be able to cope with the rising demand with their decrepit looms. Nevertheless, the controls were abolished and prices rose. Controls were then re-imposed in August 1948. At the same time positive discrimination in favour of the products of handloom weavers was introduced. These weavers were dear to Gandhi as he regarded them as the paragon of the type of cottage industry which he preferred to the mills. The well-meaning protectors of the handloom weavers did not notice that these weavers had to a large extent been replaced by powerloom weavers, whose rise will be described below. The mills were now prevented from modernizing their equipment and expanding their production. They were turned into living fossils. The mill-owners continued production half-heartedly. There seemed no longer to be any future for this industry. Some mills were closed down as early as the 1950s and 1960s. To make matters worse, a prolonged strike of textile labour in Mumbai in the 1980s sounded the death knell for the industry in this metropolis.
It was quite natural that textile labour should be frustrated under these conditions, but resorting to a strike in an industry which was already doomed proved to be counterproductive. The workers turned to Dr Datta Samant, an independent labour leader who had organized a very succesful strike for the workers of the Premier automobile factory in Mumbai. This strike ended with a substantial increase in wages, which were tied to a productivity index. Samant was a medical doctor who knew nothing about economics and thought that his recipe would work in the textile industry just as it had done in the automobile industry. He was a charismatic leader and inspired the workers to continue their strike, which started in 1982, for eighteen months. (His life ended tragically when he was openly gunned down by gangsters in 1997.) The result of the strike which he had led was perverse: the workers shifted to the powerlooms in order to earn a living and the mill-owners procured cloth from these power looms and marketed it. By the time the strike ended the powerlooms had taken over most of the production and the mills were ‘sick’.
The phenomenon of a ‘sick mill’ can only be understood in the Indian context. Elsewhere a sick mill would go bankrupt and close down. In India, however, where there are no unemployment benefits, laid-off workers are politically dangerous and therefore the government will nurse sick mills to keep them alive even if they cease to produce anything. The mill-owners soon learned to make a profit out of being sick. The Reserve Bank of India sanctioned favourable loans for such sick mills. Clever manipulators could siphon off enough money from such loans and use it for other purposes. The production of mill-made cloth declined steeply under such conditions, from about 3.4 to 2 billion metres in the decade of the 1980s. In the same period the production of powerlooms increased from 5 to 11.4 billion metres.