The cash-strapped Calcutta Municipal Corporation seized possession of Roxy cinema and slammed the shutters down on Airconditioned Market for tax default, but Mamata Banerjee intervened to help the shop stop reopen after three hours.
Officials of the civic body locked in shopkeepers at the Shakespeare Sarani shoppers’ plaza from 11am till 2pm, armed with a distress warrant to extract Rs 37 crore in property tax dues. They simultaneously took possession of the landmark Roxy cinema building at Chowringhee Place because the owner hadn’t renewed his lease agreement by paying Rs 22 crore in dues.
A distress warrant is a tool to make defaulters pay outstanding dues on the spot. Mayor Sovan Chatterjee said the crackdown hours before Dhanteras was meant to infuse a semblance of financial energy into the civic body.
“The Trinamul-run board hasn’t been able to start a single infrastructure project since it was formed in June 2010. Tax default is the trigger for this crisis,” said an official of the CMC’s revenue wing.
The shutters at the Shakespeare Sarani address were reopened only after the chief minister intervened and a tax-payment deal was struck between the CMC and the lessee. But Roxy cinema, along with its bar and eatery, remained shut through the day. Only the shops in the building were allowed to stay open.
Shopkeepers at AC market, which stocks everything from curtains to cellphones, were as surprised by the crackdown as the shoppers who had turned up. “I was in my shop when a fellow trader called me to say that CMC staff had pulled down the shutters,” recounted Uttam Jain, who owns a basement shop. “My first thought was that this Dhanteras would be a disaster for my business.”
The CMC officers, accompanied by a police team, shut the two main entrances to the building before pulling down the shutters, barring one at the back.
“The lessee (Surendra Kumar Rampuria) has ignored several notices. We pasted posters on the walls of the building, but that didn’t work either,” said Ashok Sinha, the CMC’s assistant assessor collector (south).
The pending dues — the principal amount is over Rs 26 crore and the rest is interest and penalty — date back to 1989. AC Market has about 300 shops across the 12-storey building, including two basement floors. The building also houses offices of Axis Bank, India Infoline, Reliance Capital and the MP Birla Group.
Sources said lessee Rampuria had promised to pay Rs 2 crore to the CMC on Tuesday and Rs 1 crore each month from November to January. The tenants will pay rent to the civic body, though that will earn it just over Rs 2 lakh a year with the average rent being around Rs 60 a month.
At 4A and 4B Chowringee Place, the dispute is over the renewal fee for the lease. “The land where Roxy cinema stands was leased out in 1941 and the term ended in June 2005. We approached its owner, Arun Mehra of Bengal Properties Private Ltd, and asked him to renew the lease under the new terms. He ignored the order,” mayor Chatterjee said.
The CMC has fixed the new lease amount at Rs 22 crore, which Mehra is understood to have contested. The previous annual lease fee was Rs 8,400.
Nobody representing Roxy cinema was available for comment. Mehra lives in Mumbai.
At AC market, the CMC has attached the moveable properties of the office of Sudera Enterprises on the ninth floor. But the owners can still use these as their offices.
A spokesperson for Rampuria’s company, Sudera Enterprises, said: “The court case between the tenants and the owner hasn’t been decided. So the matter is sub judice.”
According to the CMC records, outstanding property tax dues across the city amount to Rs 2,600 crore.