The narrative of the labour movement at Binny Mills is punctuated with accounts of workers’ struggles and strikes, compromises, betrayal and violence

Years after the looms fell silent, the areas adjoining the now defunct ‘Bangalore Woollen, Silk and Cotton Mills’, better known as Binny Mills, are still dotted with the remnants of what used to be one of the city’s oldest industrial zones. Cotton trading units, small looms, ‘bedding makers’, and thousands of former mill workers, and families, who have moved on to other jobs and livelihoods since the mill closed in 2005; these relics of Bangalore’s textile history are now juxtaposed, surreally, against the looming skyline of a sprawling 18-storied multi-apartment complex, built on old Binny land, in Cottonpet.

The oldest of the mills in this textile manufacturing area (including the Minerva and Raja Mills, all located around the city railway station), Binny Mills was set up in 1884. Back then, among the earliest modern steam mills, it was taken over by the Chennai-headquartered Buckingham and Carnatic Mills (Binny & Co.), which ran the mill for over a century until it was bought over by a liquor baron from Tamil Nadu.

During this period, the 800-odd looms at Binny Mills produced high grade cotton, and, as almost every former worker you speak to will boastfully declare, woollens — green sweaters, pullovers and blankets — for all regiments of the Indian Armed Forces. As a nostalgic trader, Shankar, who was an authorised Binny dealer, puts it, “Top quality. With every wash it would get smoother, and look fresher. Even if it tore, you didn’t want to throw it.”

Fight for rights

Like composite textile mills everywhere, the decline of Binny Mills started in the early 1980s. The narrative of the labour movement here is punctuated with accounts of workers’ struggles and strikes, compromises, betrayal and some violence. In the two decades preceding the final closure, the Unions fought hard for their rights, wages, benefits and fair working conditions; during this period the company consistently “rationalised resources”, so much so that the mill that employed over 7,500 workers around 1982 had less than 1,000 Voluntary Retirement Schemes (VRS) to worry about when it finally downed shutters.

Many of these workers, and their families, continue to live in and around Cottonpet, a majority of them clustered around the Kempapura Agrahara area. When asked if any former mill workers live here, 59-year-old Shantala laughs: “We’re all mill families here.” Her household still runs on the Rs. 3,700 widow pension she gets from Binny. Her brothers, who were laid off from their jobs at the mill, now work as auto drivers, and one of them is a construction worker in Bommanahalli. Many others here work as daily wage labourers in K.R. Market and Majestic.

‘Golden period’

All of them here talk of a “golden period” before the 1980s, when the mills provided for them, their welfare — including health benefits, subsidised rations on credit and an excellent canteen — and working conditions were almost ideal. “Even after public sector manufacturing units like BHEL and HAL came up, we were paid Rs. 15 to 20 more than those working there,” says Veeramani, a leader of the Binny Karmikara Sangha (BKS), affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). He says the initial unrest began when the management withdrew ration facilities, workloads went up and they announced a policy to modernise and trim the workforce.

Even the labour movement here was fragmented and lacked “true revolutionary fervour”, points out V.J.K. Nair, State president of the CITU, who worked with textile mill Unions for over two decades. The management routinely “bought over” leaders, and though the BKS launched struggles in the ’90s to get better settlements for workers who were being systematically laid off, the management did not allow a strong labour movement to flourish.

An article in Economic and Political Weekly, March 1989, during the height of labour unrest here, supports this. It documents the conditions leading up to many lockouts, including “violence engineered by the management”, retrenchment of 1,800 badli (temporary workers) and several ‘compromised’ negotiations by the INTUC in the early 1980s. Of the general Union movement, it states that “the inability of the unions to draw workers into forms of struggle beyond the filing of petitions has been due to the neglect of proper political education.”

New economic order

In the same period, all the large composite textile mills in the area went into decline; scores of them were closed, rendering thousands jobless. This had to do with the new economic order and the textile policy introduced by Rajiv Gandhi, points out Nair. He quips that the statue of Rajiv Gandhi on Platform Road actually points a finger — not to the future, as the statue maker probably envisaged — but to the mills, almost declaring, “I closed down that mill, and that.” Jokes apart, Nair explains that the policies then encouraged decentralisation of mills, promoting smaller power looms that came up around then.

Though this chapter of Bangalore’s history may not figure in the popular narrative of the ‘garden city/pensioners’ paradise that was’, in the winding thoroughfares of Cottonpet, and among its working class population, the 128-year-old building — as yet untouched by the real estate juggernaut — is a stark reminder of better times.

More In: Bangalore