Ulhasnagar is part of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. The town has a population of over half a million, of which around 400,000 are Sindhis—it has, in fact, the largest concentration of Sindhis anywhere in India. It was officially named and declared a township in 1949, and can be traced directly to the Partition exodus. A significant number of the 341,000 Hindu Sindhi ‘displaced persons’ (refugees) who moved to what was then Bombay State were offered housing of sorts in the sprawling army barracks (camps) in the Kalyan area. The majority of them hailed from modest trading and business backgrounds in Sindh: the wealthier merchants and other established elites, who had the means and connections to rent or buy property, tended to settle directly in Bombay.
Quite apart from its living conditions being dire, the new location was far from ideal. Sindhis found themselves isolated in a semi-rural district, whose inhabitants spoke a language (Marathi) foreign to them, and where the opportunity to trade and do commerce was all but absent. Attempts by the Indian government to absorb the Sindhis into the public and industrial sectors did not do much to solve the problem. Initially, the refugees were vociferous in their reluctance to accept the Kalyan camp as their new home. (Their reasoning was that there were no commercial opportunities whatsoever in the area). However, as it became clear that the Indian government was in no mood to provide them with accommodation in Bombay, they realized that they had to find creative ways around the problem.
One solution was to commute to Bombay. Statistics for 1956 indicate that about 10,000 residents of Ulhasnagar commuted daily to Bombay. The town, however, was over 50 km from downtown Bombay, and the journey was—and still is, for the considerable number that still commutes this route—a major discomfort. The grim joke was that you never quite knew what your wife looked like, as you never got to see her face in daylight. The other solution was to stay put, to think of Ulhasnagar as a sort of commercial satellite of Bombay, and to tap into the insatiable appetite of the metropolis for all manner of goods and services. The Indian government offered help to the displaced persons in the form of soft loans and training in industrial skills. A Vocational Training Centre was set up in Ulhasnagar in 1948 by the Government of Bombay with the aim of teaching the immigrants technical skills, from making beedis to bookbinding, and from tailoring to pickling.
A good number of the Sindhis who attended these courses did eventually set up 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 from hawking and small-scale retail, while others benefited from family and group corpocracy.
Given the circumstances, it is not surprising that false starts were the order of the day. Ulhasnagar was described by one scholar in 1951 as being ‘like the mythical town where all the people tried to live by taking in each other’s washing’. While government loans went a long way in making it possible for the refugees to open small shops and stalls, many soon ran into cash flow problems and closed down. Even so, the proverbial ability of Sindhis to bounce back meant that by the late 1950s, Ulhasnagar had taken shape as a significant enclave of small industries and wholesale businesses.
Ulhasnagar today is a sprawl of apartment blocks, shops, workshops and industries.
Minimalist it might not be, but the emblem is a proud statement of the fact that in a couple of decades the Sindhis managed to transform the place from a dilapidated army barracks into a thriving and busy industrial and commercial township. It is an important chapter in the story of Sindhi business, because it is an example of Sindhis going into the manufacturing industry, as opposed to staying in the commercial sector they were more usually active in.
The reputation of Ulhasnagar as a hothouse of enterprise and commercial energy has a more colourful side too. Especially in Mumbai, the name immediately conjures up images of counterfeit brands and goods that turn out to be not quite what they seem. While the association lingers on, often half in jest or in the form of stereotypes, it has its roots in a time when India was relaxed about patent protection. Besides, in the post-Independence years up to the early 1990s, import restrictions and exorbitant import tariffs meant that ‘phoren’ (foreign, mockingly) goods, often smuggled into the country by ‘couriers’, were highly desirable. The joke is that the stalls and bazaars of downtown Mumbai had not got the memo. They were, in fact, awash with goods proudly labelled ‘Made in USA’—only, ‘USA’ stood for ‘Ulhasnagar Sindhi Association’.
This excerpt from Mark-Anthony Falzon’s ‘The Sindhis: Selling Anything, Anywhere’ has been published with permission from Penguin Random House.