Moving out of Kolkata

Print edition : September 06, 2013

The HRBC building in Howrah, where the State Secretariat will be shifted temporarily. Photo: PTI

A view of Writers' Buildings in Kolkata. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

FROM October 1, the seat of power in West Bengal will be shifted temporarily from the iconic Writers’ Buildings in Kolkata to the HRBC (Hooghly River Bridge Commissioners) building across the Hooghly river in Howrah district. The move, announced by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, is necessitated by the need to carry out much-needed repair and restoration work in the 236-year-old Writers’ Buildings.

“All the departments at Writers’ Buildings, including my office, will be shifted to the 13-storey HRBC building. We will be there until the renovation at Writers’ is complete,” said Mamata Banerjee on August 7. Repeated expansions and additions have, over the years, made the buildings that make up the State Secretariat unsafe. “The Writers’ Buildings has turned into a tinderbox because of unplanned constructions. I want to ensure the safety of my employees,” she said. The cost of the restoration work is expected to be around Rs.200 crore.

The announcement came as a bolt from the blue for most officials and employees. Although no one will deny that Writers’ Buildings needs repairs and restoration, most of them agree that it will be a daunting task to relocate 28 departments with over 5,000 employees in less than two months.

Many feel that it would have been a better idea, and far less expensive, to do the renovation in phases rather than shift the entire Secretariat out of Kolkata. “It is not practical that the administrative headquarters will be in one district (Howrah) and the police headquarters in another (in Kolkata),” an informed source in the administration said. Lal Bazaar, the Kolkata police headquarters, and Writers’ Buildings are just a stone’s throw from each other.

The Leader of the Opposition Surjya Kanta Mishra agreed that Writers’ Buildings needs to be decongested. But he felt that “the seat of the Chief Minister and the departments directly concerned with the CM’s office should remain in Writers’”. He added: “It is not only desirable, it is the norm. But instead of decentralisation, Mamata Banerjee will once again concentrate all departments directly under her, lest any of them should go out of her control.”

Mishra, who is a Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), demanded a White Paper on the subject.

Designed in 1777 by Thomas Lyon, Writers’ Buildings was created to be the office of the clerks of the East India Company—hence the name Writers. Over the years, the structure expanded many times, primarily to bring all departments under one roof. According to sources, Mamata Banerjee wishes to do away with four blocks that came up after 1947 and restore Writers’ as close to its original design as possible. Once the renovation is done, the plan is to bring back only 11 key departments, besides the CMO (Chief Minister’s Office): the departments of Home, Finance, Personnel, Land and Land Revenue, Agriculture, Public Works, North Bengal Development, Information & Culture, Law, Disaster Management, and Minorities Development. By implication, the other departments will remain outside Writers’ Buildings.

This is not the first time that departments have been shifted out of Writers’ Buildings. During the CPI(M)-led Left Front government’s rule, quite a number of important departments, including Health, Education, Power, Development, Housing, Industry and Irrigation, had been moved to different locations. However, what has irked many is the abruptness of Mamata Banerjee’s decision to shift, without adequate preparedness and necessary infrastructure support.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

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