The first salvo fired, the government slipped behind a veil of silence on Friday as the battle on the Memorial grounds intensified along the shadow lines of aesthetics and ambition.
“The state government has its views on the project, but I will not comment on it now,” said Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee when urged to speak about the controversy.
The point of contention (as reported in Thursday’s Metro) is the construction of an annexe to the 91-year-old Victoria Memorial Hall, with an art gallery, exhibition centre and auditorium.
The project is being steered by Governor Viren J. Shah as chairman of the board of trustees governing Victoria Memorial.
According to plans drawn up by the Calcutta Tercentenary Trust, work on the 19-m-high, white marble structure near the Cathedral Road entrance was to begin in 2005.
But the government has taken exception to the governor’s construction plans on the Memorial grounds and, reportedly, moved Delhi to stall the project, in a near replay of a similar ‘deconstruction’ drama enacted on the greens 20 years ago.
Friends of the governor on Friday accused the government of “trying to convert this into something of the Taj corridor issue”, whereas the matter of the Memorial’s annexe was “nothing like it”.
Home secretary Amit Kiran Deb on Friday clarified the official position of Writers’ Buildings, vis-à-vis Raj Bhavan: “As the governor is ex-officio chairman of the Memorial trustee board, he may plan any project and the trust can take any decision on any project. But everyone will have to conform to the rules.
“The details of the project have to be submitted to the heritage commission. The commission will then forward it to the government along with its observations. Thereafter, it will be the sole discretion of the government to take a final decision.’’
Pratap Chandra Chunder, chairman, state heritage commission, sounded bullish about the building: “The project will not mar the Memorial’s aesthetics. What is the present condition of the staff quarters and canteen' Is it very beautiful' If a new structure comes up by demolishing the ugly structure, what is the harm' I have personally visited the site and found the plan to be an ideal one.”
Also required to give the governor’s grand plans the go-ahead is the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC).
“The plan has not reached my table and I do not want to comment, as the governor is involved,” said mayor Subrata Mukherjee.
An officer of the CMC dealing with such matters elaborated: “The Victoria Memorial Hall is a Grade I building, so one has to be very cautious. Public opinion in the matter must be sought and it has to be found out why a building must be constructed on that spot itself.”
There is a legal twist in the tale. Bimal Bandyopadhyay, superintendent engineer of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), in an affidavit before a division bench of Calcutta High Court on June 2004, said no construction within 100 metres of a monument’s protected area (read: the total compound) is allowed. Beyond that distance, construction is only allowed with prior approval from the ASI.
Among those coming out strongly against the proposed annexe was artist K.G. Subramanyan: “What we call heritage is in most cases hemmed around by non-heritage. Victoria Memorial is an exception and so the environment must be preserved. This is one place that is still unspoilt. We cannot afford to ruin it when we talk about cultural tourism.”