If you live in Mumbai and have shopped online, you could not have missed the references to "Bhiwandi sorting hub" while tracking your order. Over the past five years, this powerloom town 37km northeast of Mumbai has emerged as a key, if unlikely, hub in the logistics chain serving the region.
Fields that were once covered with paddy and vegetables have sprouted high-tech warehouses. All the ecommerce biggies, from Flipkart to Amazon to Snapdeal, as well as niche players have warehouses here to route products to Mumbai homes. In the process, the new warehouse industry is reshaping the Bhiwandi economy — and changing the lives of some of the local farmers.
The transformation has happened slowly, and without any regulation. No one knows how many warehouses there are here — local police say the number runs into the thousands. A survey has now been initiated, says tehsildar Vaishali Lambhate, as the government looks to start tapping revenue from the sector.
Rise of a warehousing hub:
Bhiwandi has always enjoyed a location advantage, sitting astride highways that connect Mumbai, Thane, and the JNPT port. It had warehouses years ago, too; old-fashioned godowns to store cement and the like. But those were too few to make a difference to the local economy. Bhiwandi remained a town of powerlooms, with a largely poor, migrant and Muslim population, and a history of communal riots.
Then, between 2005 and 2008, Indian companies began strengthening their logistics chains. This was when villagers in Rahnal first gave their farm land on lease for constructing warehouses, says social worker and local resident Surendra Tiwari.
But it was the post-2010 e-commerce boom that changed everything. Online companies wanted fulfilment centres at a place that could serve their key markets within a day. Bhiwandi fit the bill — the rentals were cheap as these were panchayat areas and there were no taxes, says an industry insider. Vashi or Koparkhairane also had the location advantage but skyrocketing land prices made those areas uncompetitive.
So when Karan Behal decided early last year to adopt an online-only model for his thriving business selling specialized women's lingerie, he didn't have to think twice about locating his warehouse in Bhiwandi. Behal hired a warehouse at Sonale village for Prettysecrets.com and recently shifted to a bigger warehouse at nearby Pogaon village. Big warehouses range in size from 1,000 square feet to 5-10 lakh square feet, with rentals from Rs 13 to Rs 25 per square foot per month.
From the outside, the warehouses look like huge factories but they do not make things, only store them. Still, they offer semi-skilled and unskilled jobs such as picking and sorting goods, and employ anywhere from 15 to 500 people, depending on the size of the warehouse. Wages can go up to Rs 25,000 per month, and more for managers.
Most of the skilled jobs are done by labour from outside Bhiwandi, says Biren Thakkar, an accounts manager at prettysecrets.com. Every day, thousands of warehouse workers are bussed in and out of Bhiwandi from Kalyan, Dombivli and Navi Mumbai. Kalyan resident Santosh Rai used to work in Mumbai at a grocery distribution company but now works as a loader at a tea warehouse in Bhiwandi — at better pay, he says.
Some locals have also landed jobs. "Earlier there was no employment in my village and my father used to go to Bhiwandi city for work and bring home about Rs 4,000-Rs ?5,000 every month," says Dinesh Gayakhe from Pogaon village, who works as a biller at a warehouse. "But I now work in my village itself and earn Rs 12,000 a month."
But locals are more likely to make money from land rents, from loading contracts, and from providing services. Many no longer look for work in Kalyan to supplement their incomes.
A real-estate boom:
The new economy has also attracted real-estate developers. High-rises up to 22 stories have come up in areas like Anjurphata, Kalyan-Bhiwandi road and Kambha. Private banks that used to refuse home loans in Bhiwandi have begun sanctioning loans for these projects. "You can buy flats in buildings without any amenities, or go for one [with] a club house, garden and swimming pool," says Ajay Singh, a local developer. The rates range from Rs 2,700-Rs 4,000 per square feet.
Rishabh Srivastava, an accountant at a warehouse, stays in Ambernath but recently bought a flat in Anjurphata to avoid the three-hour commute. There is a lot of new good-quality construction going on here, he says.
But locals say illegal constructions are also mushrooming. And indeed, the rise of modern warehouses here has yet to lead to broader improvements in regulations, infrastructure and even basic services in the area.