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Writers’ II spells heritage doom

- 5-storey plan at Laldighi

Final touches are being given to a plan to build a five-storey Writers’ II next to Laldighi, opposite the GPO, violating the harmony and grandeur of the heritage zone steeped in history.

The first time that the architectural harmony of Dalhousie Square, now known as BBD Bag, was violated was when B.C. Roy, the second chief minister of Bengal, ordered the demolition of Dalhousie Institute in the 1950s to construct the Telephone Bhavan, which blocked the unimpeded view of Writers’ Buildings that Government House once commanded.

Now the sanctity and dignity of Calcutta’s fulcrum and the state’s power centre constructed around the large water body named Laldighi will be desecrated for a second time if the government constructs a building in the space between Writers’ Buildings coloured a deep red and the GPO, whose massive white dome dominates the skyline.

A.B. Bardhan, secretary, public works department (PWD), said on Wednesday that construction of a five-storey structure, not more than Writers’ Buildings in height, will begin next to Laldighi opposite the GPO within two months to accommodate the chief minister’s office as well as others’. The air-conditioned building will take about two years to complete, and although it is still in the designing stage, its architectural style will be similar to that of Writers’. Now it only needs the clearance of the heritage commission.

Partha Ranjan Das, member, state heritage commission, is opposed to the project. “The CMDA in its outline development plan said no construction is allowed in Dalhousie Square. If there is space shortage in Writers’ there are many empty government buildings that can be utilised. Or some departments which are almost redundant can be shifted elsewhere.”

According to a highly-placed PWD source, there is an urgent need to construct this annexe, as Writers’ is 237 years old. Security becomes a problem when VVIPs arrive. Moreover, the load of new offices is increasing everyday.

Why not explore other options? The building at 4 Camac Street has been taken over by the commerce and industry department and there is not enough space in the New Secretariat building, countered the source. However, he clarified there is no question of any construction without the nod of the heritage commission.

According to the Archaeological Monuments, Sites and Remains Act 1958 (it was amended in March 2010) no construction is allowed within 100 metres of an Archaeological Survey of India (ASI)-protected structure. Beyond 200 metres, construction is allowed but only with permission.

St. John’s Church, Metcalfe Hall and Currency Building, all within 200 metres of the proposed construction site, are ASI-protected. “This itself should be a deterrent for any construction there. Also, BBD Bag was declared an endangered heritage site in 2004-2006 by the World Monument Watch, subsequent to which the CMC also treated it as a heritage precinct,” said G.M. Kapur, convener, Intach for West Bengal and Calcutta Regional Chapter.

Historian H.E.A. Cotton recorded that Laldighi was dug “to provide the inhabitants of Calcutta with water which is very sweet and pleasant”, while the Sabarna Choudhury family and the Seth Basaks, who had settled here long before Job Charnock landed, claimed they had excavated it. The British had constructed the first Fort William on the spot where the GPO came up after Siraj-ud-Daulah’s sack of Calcutta, and Writers’ was constructed in 1776 to accommodate the junior servants of the East India Company or the “writers”.

Some of the proudest buildings in the city were built around Laldighi at the epicentre of the square, and no construction was allowed there till 1863. It boasts the recently-restored Currency Building, St. Andrew’s Church, the GPO, the telegraph office or Dead Letter Office with its defining feature, the campanile, and the elegant and bedraggled Standard Life Assurance Company building. The Tank Square, as it was known earlier, was renamed after Lord Dalhousie on March 6, 1865, after the foundation of Dalhousie Institute was laid. Telephone Bhavan has occupied the space since 1954.

Ganesh Pyne was aghast when told about the plan. “Both these buildings, Writers’ and the GPO, are sacrosanct. Think of the historical associations of this zone. The history of several centuries is enmeshed in this square. How can they do it?” exclaimed the artist.

Architect Balkrishna Doshi, who is quite familiar with the layout of this precinct, reacted in a similar fashion. “This is outrageous. It will change the heritage character of Dalhousie Square. They should drop the idea and preserve the whole area,” he said from Ahmedabad.

Overseas too, the reaction was sharp. Philip Davies of English Heritage — an organisation that protects and promotes England’s “spectacular” historic environment — who is an authority on Raj architecture and author of Splendours of the Raj, wrote in an email: “Dalhousie Square lies at the very heart of historic Calcutta. It is of national importance and warrants the highest standards of care and conservation. If the West Bengal government needs more accommodation in the area, then it should consider sensitively adapting and converting one of the many rundown historic buildings in the heritage zone rather than blighting it with more unwelcome new buildings. I earnestly hope that the government will think again before it damages the qualities which make the city so special.”

Should Writers’ II be allowed to come up in the heritage zone? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com