Kanpur: Once The Largest North Indian City

by | Oct 9, 2020

The city that was called ‘Cawnpore’ during the British raj, was once among India’s leading cities. A fruit vendor who used to work in Kanpur’s textile industry, tells, “Earlier, Kanpur sent goods to the rest of the country, and now, it has become a dump yard for consumer goods.”


Kanpur ran its first electric tram in 1907, the same year it started in Bombay. The first textile company – Elgin Mills, began here in 1862, which paved way for 9 other textile companies before the start of the 20th century, making it North India’s biggest industrial city. The same city now houses about 400 different slums with ever increasing population and unemployment. Many of these houses are still devoid of basic services.

Read more: How the Once Flourishing Kanpur Textile Mills Decayed

The story of decayed industry in Kanpur starts with the time of its flourish, back to the year 1857. During the Satti Chaura revolt in Cawnpore, around 300 British personnel were killed on the orders of revolt hero Nana Saheb. The incident jolted the British so much that they decided to turn Kanpur (then Cawnpore) into a fortress, heavily guarded by the army and police.

The city suddenly became a safe place for the British and a high-demand for-textiles place for the colonizers. Gradually, after the rise of a few textile mills, Kanpur became the most important sourcing center for the army and the police across colonial India. Eventually, the Indian capitalist class joined trade by setting up a parallel leather industry to meet army’s needs. The biggest boom to this industry came in the form of the 2nd world war, when the requirements of army personnel touched an all-time high.


The well established textile industry in Kanpur started showing signs of crumble soon after independence. Prominent families in the city, like those of Kotharis and Jaipurias bought these industries from their British owners. The high profits in textile during the era of nation-building were directed towards setting up new ventures, as the mill owners were aspiring to expand their empires. The industry suffered losses as a result of declining investment towards modernization of mills. By the end of 1960s, the owners began shutting down their mills, putting around 1 lakh workers in jeopardy. That is when the government of India (GOI) intervened and took over the nine biggest mills in the city.

The nationalization of Kanpur mills which appeared to be a boon at start, turned out to be an ill-fated step due to several loopholes, mismanagement and corruption. There was lack of modernization as well as innovation due to several reason. The officials did not have a vested interest in working upon the sustainability of mills. They needed to earn money, and there were a lot of unofficial ways to do that. All of this led to further crumbling of the industry in Kanpur

Kanpur textile workers protesting against corruption in top management (Source: http://archive.cgpi.org/)

The contractor-administration-politician nexus grew strong. Heavy duty corruption resulting in fudging the profit figures, despite high production, was the main reason that these industries started to decline.

– Daulat Ram, vice-president of UP committee of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) in one of the published interviews.


By the 1980s, the industry had already started showing signs of irreparable decline as the government’s intentions to professionalize the management could not be seen. As a result of the Rajiv Gandhi government’s 1985 Textile and Handloom Industry Policy, labor strength was gradually reduced from over 2 crore workers across the country to about 50 lakh, without any rehabilitation package.

In 1989, the K.K. Pandey committee was set up by the government to implement this textile policy. It recommended severe cuts in the labor strength. On 24th January 1989, the world’s longest railways jam was organized by the workers that lasted for 110 hours. It forced the government to dismantle the committee. After a sustained and militant labor movement around this time, the policy could not be implemented.


In 1992, a year after the economic reforms were introduced, the Narasimha Rao government had issued a notice to stop production in all the mills being run by central government in Kanpur, without officially closing them. They were declared as “sick” units. The final knell for the textile industry came during the BJP (Bhartiya Janta Party) government’s tenure at the Centre. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government started a package for the voluntary retirement of workers, famously known as the Golden Handshake Scheme. But those who opted for it got only between 1 lakh rupees to 2.5 lakh rupees, an amount that could not last long to sustain workers. As a result, most of the struggling mills and tanneries were also closed.


In 2002, around 14,000 workers in the National Textiles Corporation (NTC) and 5,000 workers in the British India Corporation (BIC) were left without work. They were forced to work in the unorganized sector as daily wage earners. Many others returned to their native villages. The decline of the textile industry in Kanpur, has often been attributed to the trade unions and their calls for strikes. However, the policy restructuring by successive governments, the resultant bureaucratic insouciance, and private corporates’ lack of interest have been some of the major factors responsible for the industry’s decay. The communal polarization after Babri masjid incident in Ayodhya (1992) also divided the laborers on faith basis and weakened the movement.

The story of Kanpur’s textile mills is one of bureaucracy and political insensitivity. It is also an example of transition of a city that was once called “Manchester of the East” to a decadent dumping yard being run by communal and anti-labor politics.

After the Narendra Modi government came into power, the Union Minister of Heavy Industries and Public Sector Enterprises Anand Geete raised the hope of workers by announcing GOI’s plans to revive about two-thirds of the sick industries. However, none of those announcements have materialized since 2014, and after this pandemic, the possibility of revival of these industries by the government, looks bleak.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article, are personal to the author and may not necessarily reflect the view of India Fellow Program.

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