Writers’ Through Eras
- 1777: The 3-storey edifice is built to house East India Company ‘writers’
- 1821: 128-foot veranda with Ionic columns added to 1st, 2nd floors
- 1883: Parapet put in place, statues sculpted by William Fredric Woodington installed along terrace
- 1889-1906: Two blocks added, approached by a wooden staircase still in use; Writers’ acquires its Greco-Roman look
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unplanned annexures have not just ruined the architectural grandeur of the facade, but its warren-like innards and outdated electrical wiring has turned the building into a ticking disaster.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.