How Sindhis Created Businesses After Partition
youlhasnagar is part of the Mumbai metropolitan region. The city has a population of over half a million, of which around 400,000 are Sindhis – it has, in fact, the largest concentration of Sindhis in all of India. It was officially named and declared a township in 1949, and can be directly attributed to the exodus from partition. A significant number of the 341,000 Hindu Sindhi “displaced persons” (refugees) who moved into what was then Bombay state were offered some sort of accommodation in the sprawling army barracks (camps) in the area of Kalyan. The majority of them came from modest Sindsian business and commercial backgrounds: the wealthier merchants and other established elites, who had the means and connections to rent or buy property, tended to settle directly in Mumbai.
Regardless of his dire living conditions, the new location was far from ideal. The Sindhis found themselves isolated in a semi-rural neighborhood, whose residents spoke a language (Marathi) foreign to them, and where the ability to trade and trade was virtually absent. Attempts by the Indian government to absorb Sindhis into the public and industrial sectors have done little to address the problem. At first, the refugees were vocal in their reluctance to accept Kalyan camp as their new home. (Their reasoning was that there were no business opportunities in the area). However, when it became clear that the Indian government was in no mood to provide them with accommodation in Bombay, they realized they had to find creative ways around the problem.
One solution was to go to Bombay. Statistics from 1956 indicate that about 10,000 Ulhasnagar residents traveled to Bombay daily. The city, however, was over 50 km from downtown Bombay, and the journey was – and still is, for the considerable number who still commute on this route – a major inconvenience. The grim joke was that you never really knew what your wife looked like, because you could never see her face in daylight. The alternative was to stay put, think of Ulhasnagar as a kind of commercial satellite of Bombay, and tap into the metropolis’ insatiable appetite for all kinds of goods and services. The Indian government has offered aid to the displaced in the form of soft loans and industrial skills training. A vocational training center was established in Ulhasnagar in 1948 by the Bombay government with the aim of teaching immigrants technical skills, from beedi-making to bookbinding, and from dressmaking to pickling.
A good number of Sindhis who have taken these courses have eventually started their own small businesses. Government loans were not the only route to capital for the Sindhis of Ulhasnagar. Some of them managed to save money through peddling and petty trading, while others benefited from family and collective corpocracy.
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Given the circumstances, it’s no surprise that false starts were the order of the day. Ulhasnagar was described by a scholar in 1951 as being “like the mythical city where all the people tried to live by washing each other”. While government loans were instrumental in enabling refugees to open small shops and stalls, many quickly ran into cash flow problems and closed. Even so, the Sindhis’ proverbial ability to bounce back meant that by the late 1950s Ulhasnagar had taken the form of an important enclave of small industries and wholesale trade.
Ulhasnagar today is a sprawl of apartment buildings, shops, workshops and industries.
It may not be minimalist, but the emblem is a proud statement of the fact that in a few decades, the Sindhis managed to transform the place from a dilapidated military barracks into a thriving and bustling industrial and commercial township. . This is an important chapter in the history of Sindhi business, as it is an example of Sindhis entering the manufacturing industry, instead of remaining in the commercial sector in which they were more generally active.
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Ulhasnagar’s reputation as a business incubator and commercial energy also has a more colorful side. Especially in Mumbai, the name immediately conjures up images of counterfeit brands and products that are not quite what they seem. Although the association persists, often half-jokingly or in the form of stereotypes, it has its roots in a time when India was relaxed on patent protection. Furthermore, in the years following independence until the early 1990s, import restrictions and exorbitant import tariffs meant that “phoren” (foreign, mocking) goods, often smuggled in the country by “couriers”, were highly desirable. The joke is that stalls and bazaars in downtown Mumbai had not received the memo. In fact, they were inundated with products proudly labeled “Made in USA” – only, “USA” stood for “Ulhasnagar Sindhi Association”.
This excerpt from “The Sindhis: Selling Anything, Anywhere” by Mark-Anthony Falzon is courtesy of Penguin Random House.