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See-reason cry on hotel

Calcutta, March 16: The 165- year-old Great Eastern Hotel, bleeding for over a decade, is a terminal case and the money that keeps it breathing on a life-support system can be used to help the needy, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's government said today.

Tourism minister Dinesh Dakua said the hotel, which was eating up nearly Rs 5 crore a year, was unsustainable and must be privatised immediately.

Dakua said the government had no other option as the hotel was bleeding it dry.

'Every month, I somehow manage to get Rs 35 lakh sanctioned from the finance department for paying salaries to hotel staff. Only I know what a painful process it is. Each time the finance minister tells me he will not allot any money the next month. The government cannot go on paying salaries to a defunct hotel out of the taxpayer's pocket,' Dakua said.

Terming the expenditure on Great Eastern 'wasteful', Dakua said there were 'priority sectors' where the funds could be better used (see chart).

The government's note of caution came against the backdrop of an agitation mayor Subrata Mukherjee, also president of the Bengal National Trade Union Congress, threatened to launch to 'protect' the interests of Great Eastern employees.

'I cannot condone any government move to privatise the hotel, sacrificing employee interests. If needed, I will go to court to stop privatisation,' Mukherjee said on his way out of Writers' Buildings after a meeting with the chief minister.

'There is no point talking to the trade unions all over again. We will have to commit ourselves to privatising Great Eastern without further delay,' Dakua said, appealing to the 400-odd employees to accept the early retirement scheme (ERS) before the March 26 deadline.

He added that Mukherjee's threat did not bother him, but he was concerned that the unions' hard line would damage the chances of success of the retirement scheme that had been drawn up with assistance from the UK's Department for International Development.

'Any further delay may even lead to the cancellation of the package. If that happens, it will be most unfortunate.'

The minister ruled out further dialogue with the union bosses, pointing out that 'people like Mukherjee' said a few days ago the government should pull out of the hospitality sector.

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