“People from Maharashtra like finely ground flour; Gujaratis like it medium and Punjabis prefer it to be a bit coarse,” says Surya Prakash Singh, a flour miller in Mumbai. With three decades in the business, he knows the taste of his customers well.
Surya, 53, migrated to Mumbai from Pipari village in Uttar Pradesh when he was just 18 years old. He came looking for a job and started out as a helper in mills around Thane and Dombivali before getting to manage a mill in Mulund and becoming a chakki wala. The mill he runs is located in Mulund, a suburb in Mumbai. Set in a small lane, a board outside announces, ‘Krishna Flour Mill’. Surya is the manager and can often be seen standing at the entrance of the mill surrounded by tins of aata [flour]. The grey walls inside are covered in flour, as are his clothes.
Inside the room the chakki sits centrestage: two stone grinders are held inside a metal container with a funnel-shaped opening on top of it. A motor is placed on the opposite end and a belt runs from the stone grinders to the motor, connecting the two.
As Surya switches on the motor, power rumbles through the belt and rotates the stone grinders. He empties wheat into the funnel and collects the ground flour in a container placed below the machine. Customers would bring wheat grains that they had purchased in bulk and cleaned by hand. This would be ground at the local chakki, like Krishna Flour Mill.
Left and middle: Surya empties the wheat grains into a funnel from where they drop into the grinding machine. Right: Surya fills up the dabbas with the ground flour. Photos by Priyanka Gulati
He dismantles the machine about once a week to clean it. The entire process takes him about two hours.
Despite having spent his entire working life as a miller, Surya firmly says, “I will never encourage anyone to run a chakki [flour mill]. There is no life in this.” The entry of packaged flour has reduced the demand for custom-ground flour and this miller’s income has dropped significantly. Until the late 90s, he ran his mill for at least 10-12 hours a day. Now, on most days he opens his chakki in the evening around 5 p.m. and is done by 8 p.m. He earns roughly Rs. 15,000 a month from the mill.
“I would earn about Rs. 1-2 for grinding a kilo of flour. Those days Rs. 500 would buy a lot of things. Now everything is more expensive,” he says.
Today Surya charges about Rs. 7 for a kilo of atta (wheat flour). He works with different grains like chana dal at Rs. 10 for a kilo, jowar for Rs. 7 a kilo, bajra and nachni at Rs. 6 a kilo. Wheat flour is the most in demand.
“Sometimes accidents happen if a coin or small object is hidden in the grains,” says Surya. The band holding the motor can break-off due to a small and sharp object and hit someone nearby. It happened to him once – a machine part broke off and hit him near his eye. In minutes his head was soaked in blood. Children playing nearby saw him and took him to a private hospital, but he couldn’t afford the treatment there. A local doctor treated him. “ I wasn’t standing very close to the machine, ” he recalls and adds, “I wouldn’t be alive otherwise.”
Although Surya has been running this mill for about 20 years, he does not own it. The owner of the mill calculates Surya’s rent based on the kilos of flour that are ground – a metre attached to the machine keeps track. “For grinding 9 kilos of atta I charge Rs. 63 of which I keep Rs. 20, and the rest goes to the owner,” says Surya.
As his customers drop by, he greets them and engages them in conversation while grinding the flour and transferring it to their dabbas [containers]. “My customers have been loyal to me. When I have been ill and unable to work, they have waited but never gone to any other chakki,” he adds.
The stone ground process that is followed in local chakkis like the one Surya runs, grinds the grain slowly at a low temperature. Industrial mills on the other hand, use high speed rolling that releases excess heat lowering the nutritional content of the flour. Additionally, packaged products may have preservatives to give them a longer shelf life.
A customer (who did not want to be named) has been coming to him for 10 years and says he finished cleaning the grains this morning before coming here. “We can’t afford to buy packaged atta, that’s why we come here. He [Surya] knows exactly how we want our atta,” he adds. Another customer who has been coming to him for two years says that her previous chakki wala would charge more so she shifted to this mill. She prefers locally milled flour as she feels it is healthier.
His chakki is the only source of income for his family of five – his wife Chaya and his children Salu, 27, Abhishekh, 23, and Aniket, 21. Surya pays Rs.5,000 house rent and manages household expenses from his earnings at the mill. “I sleep in the mill at night because our house is too small for all of us,” he says, and adds that he hopes that things will get better once his sons start earning.
Surya managed to continue earning during the Covid-19 lockdown. “I kept my chakki open as I didn’t have to take permission. My chakki was the only one in the area that was open,” he says.
“Although there is not a lot of money [in running a mill], I cannot think of doing anything else. This chakki, this motor, this life, is all I have known,” he says.
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Priyanka Gulati has an undergraduate in Journalism from Sophia College for Women, Mumbai. She wrote this story during her internship with PARI Education. She wanted to report this story to learn about how small businesses in big cities are under threat.