Writers’ Through Eras
Not even Bengal’s most clairvoyant could have foreseen that Mamata Banerjee’s much-touted ‘poriborton’ would include shifting the very seat of governance. But that’s exactly what she has done. Two years into her tenure, when she faces criticism for doing precious little to change the ills that plague Bengal—economic stagnation, corruption or debilitating partycracy—she seems to be falling back on empty postures. Last week, Mamata declared that governance would no longer take place at Writers’ Building, the Bengal secretariat, but be shifted to another administrative office in Howrah district, across the Hooghly river.
The earliest wings of the iconic Writers’ Building in central Calcutta were built in 1777 when Warren Hastings was the governor-general of India. Sprawling over 500,000 square feet, the city’s first three-storey edifice was supposed to house the clerks of East India Company, also known as ‘writers’. Designed by Thomas Lyon, the building had four wings—Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Science. After Independence, four other clusters were added. Since then, ad-hoc structures—like wooden partitions to create cubicles to house the growing number of bureaucrats—kept being added. According to Mamata, these unplanned annexures have not just ruined the architectural grandeur of the facade, but its warren-like innards and outdated electrical wiring has turned the building into a ticking disaster. “ Writers’ Building has turned into a tinderbox,” Didi told reporters while making the announcement. “The building is centuries-old and requires immediate repairs.”
Mamata plans to demolish the clusters later added and restore the building to its original design. And she wants the job done in just three months; a whopping Rs 200 crore will be spent.
While no one who has walked Writers’ corridors would deny the need for a spot of renovation—with its crumbling, paan-stained walls and peeling paint, creaky staircases with rickety railings, congested rooms with termite-ridden wooden cupboards crammed with files probably dating from Hastings’s times—the large-scale restoration plan has reportedly created panic amongst staff. “I agree that Writers’ desperately needs attention, but shifting the government out, that too to a far-off location, will create havoc,” says a bureaucrat. “Such a project needs time and planning. It can’t be executed in three months. It’s not just the building and the infrastructure. There are other factors that need consideration. For instance, we are dealing with hundreds and thousands of classified and secret files. How can we just shift all of these to a new building in such short notice?”
Others have complained about the “colossal waste at a time when the Bengal government constantly cribs about being cash-strapped”. The plan is to make a temporary shift to a building in Howrah’s Mandirtala Bazaar, and then to Dumurjola. Nobody knows how the furniture and other paraphernalia would be accommodated. Several political commentators feel that the entire operation could be a diversionary tactic. “With this huge project, there is an alibi for not being accountable. The shift could now be used as an excuse for non-performance,” says Tarun Ganguly. But Mamata is undeterred. “I want safety of my employees,” she adamantly insists. But if employees are to be believed, what’s causing the panic is the “hasty, whimsical decision and impossible deadline” for the shift. Being at the nerve centre of a metropolis in a building from where they once ruled India, the writers, it seems, are loath to break a 200-year-old tradition.
I read the shift of the Bengal secretariat out of Writers’ Building with interest (Tughlaq in Bengal, Aug 26). Fire ravaged Mantralaya, a much younger building, in Bombay last year. Fortunately, there was hardly any loss of life. If something goes wrong in Writers’, it would be a great tragedy. Its useful life as a large building hosting many government offices may be over. Three months would barely suffice to vacuum-clean the huge building and remove the cobwebs.
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
For instance, we are dealing with hundreds and thousands of classified and secret files. ....
For instance, we are dealing with hundreds and thousands of classified and secret files. ....
is anything really classified in W. Bengal?
The way forward should have been to construct a modern skyscraper to accommodate all the offices. After the shifting is over, acrry out the restoration of the iconic Writers' Building and make it a museum. There is a lot of history attached to this building and it needs to be preserved in its present form for future generations.
Mohammed bin Tughlak was indeed capricious and vindictive but he was also a visionary, far ahead of his times. Wish one could say the same about our Mamata Di.
Fire ravaged large parts of Mantralaya, a very much younger building, in Bombay last year. Fortunately there was hardly any loss of life. God forbid, if something goes wrong in Writers' Building, it would be a great tragedy. Its useful life as a physical structure that can accomodate thousands of people working - one hopes - in it is certainly over. Three months would barely suffice to vacuum clean the place and remove the cobwebs and loose wiring. A modern office complex could be developed in Salt Lake City or any location which symbolises Calcutta's future, instead of its colonial past. If this does not sound crass, the real estate value of the site could be unlocked, to pay for the new offices.
Given all that one has read, Writer's Building is a disaster waiting to happen. Would it be able to pass any authentic fire safety inspection? If it was a private office any government worth the name would have declared it unfit for occupation until suitable safety measures are implemented.
As far as the objection to moving to a distant place is concerned this is the standard reaction. Rajiv Gandhi wanted to demolish all additions to North and South Blocks but nothing happened as noone wanted to vacate his cubby hole and move to Ghaziabad or Gurgaon.
The Maharashtra government buit Konkan Bhavan in Navi Mumbai with a view to decongesting Mantralaya, but as customary no minister was ready to move.
While I am not a great fan of mamata's autocratic ways, characterisation of her as a latter day Muhammad bin Tughlaq is unfair.
Media kept on saying Mamata has lost popular support in Bengal. But panchayat elections proved all that wrong.
Its so sad that we are no more able to hear facts or truth only color opinions based on personal ideology of the authors.
And the media doesnt even have the integrity or basic decency to comeback to its readers/audience and say we where wrong.
This is increasingly true for any topic politics/economy or even entertainment.
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