Binny Mills as seen from SPR City

The history of Binny Mills is pretty much well known – founded as the Buckingham and Carnatic Mills in the 1860s by the firm of Binny’s, which had been in existence in Madras from the 1790s, it marked the first phase of industrialisation in Madras, and later, Bangalore. The Binny Mills estate was located in Pulianthope, with the two mills, several worker villages, a cricket ground known as Hawkfield and the famed CarnBuck Club. At their height, in the 1920s, the mills, between Madras and Bangalore employed over 25,000 people. Labour trouble was rampant and it was at Binny Mills that the first workers’ union in India, named the Madras Labour Union was formed.

By the 1970s, the best years of Binny’s were clearly over. The firm of Inchcape in England owned it and was reluctant to invest in modernisation. Those were India’s socialist years, with Mrs Gandhi flirting with the Communists and foreign-owned firms were not viewed favourably. Labour costs at Binny were high as well. A devastating flood in the 1980s marked the beginning of the end. The company changed hands many times, there were several attempts at getting it going once again but all of it came to nought. Ultimately, Binny was broken up for its real estate, among its final owners and creditors.

The Pulianthope properties became quite derelict, with just the Buckingham Mills being used for shootings and the Carnatic Gardens becoming the State Bank’s training facility. The Carnatic Mills land has since been developed. Hawkfield, owned by State Bank of India, is a vast forest. The workers villages, Alexander, Carnatic Mill, Grasmere and Old Barracks, simply degenerated. I have spent many hours wandering around these places, but alas at a time when smart phones had not yet come into vogue. I did take several pictures with a camera but I have since lost all of them. I have been warned off several times by local dadas for my curiosity. It had always been my ambition to organise a heritage walk around this area but I somehow kept putting it off until too late.

A model of the proposed city

Anyway, that is all by way of a prelude to my visit to the place last week. Have you heard of Hemachandran Logan and his Brand Avatar? It specialises in marketing communications as a way of brand building. I knew of them from before but came to understand their work up close during the lockdown. Hem, as I refer to him, called me last week and asked me to go with him to Binny Mills. He said I would be astounded by what is happening there. He was quite right.

The 63 acres behind the old Buckingham Mills is now in the process of being transformed into SPR City, a collaboration between the SPR Group and Binny Mills. These comprise luxury residences in Highliving District, which will comprise the tallest towers in the city, of which one is 45 floors while the others are 30-odd storeys. There are besides bungalows, divided into Affluence, Buckingham and Carnatic sections. The Shri Ram Universal School, the first of the Delhi-based educational entities branches in our city has come up on the site. There are besides on the anvil an eleven-screen PVR multiplex, a shopping mall, health zones, sporting academies, leisure and unwinding options and a lot more. Work was in full swing when I went and despite my great fear of heights I went up in a super fast lift to the top floor and delighted in a panoramic view of Chennai, my knees quaking all the time. I was also rewarded by a view of the old mills building, retained for the film shoots.

The Market of India

But by far the most interesting aspect of the development is the wholesale market that is also planned on the same site. Named the Market of India, it aims to provide an international facility for wholesale trade in Chennai. The statistics are certainly impressive – 18kms of trade corridors, over fifty trades divided into nine markets, a central plaza of 100,000 square feet for events, 5,000 shops and offices, 60,000 sq ft of atrium area and a humongous 54,00,000 sq ft of built-up area to house over a 100,000 products. There are truck terminals, LCV parking facilities, space for over 5,000 cars, modern security arrangements, firefighting equipment and data facilities. A very endearing feature to me was the way eight of the nine markets had been named after the traditional market areas of George Town – Strotten Muthiah Murali, Parry’s, Govindappa Naicken, Mint, Narayana Murali and NSC Bose. There is besides Ritchie Street, which is for the electronics trade.

It appears that with all of this, the entire Perambur/Pulianthope area is set for a facelift. The SPR Group has even offered to take care of the Otteri Nullah that flows by the property. Let us hope that there are better times ahead for what was once a byword of squalor.