The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Public works on display
The familiar facade of Writers’ Buildings. File picture

In his critique of colonial rule in India, Karl Marx had written that the British were interested in development work and that while the external affairs department was engaged in “plunder of the exterior”, the revenue department was busy with the “plunder of the interior.”

The public works department (PWD) was a sop to the people, and the railway network was connected to the resource-rich areas so that raw material could be sent out of the country, and the riot police could be mobilised to crush uprisings and strengthen colonial rule. However, the British unwittingly ushered in social revolution and they acted as an “unconscious tool of history.”

The PWD was hived off from the home ministry in 1855. According to Percival Spear, Dalhousie “suppressed the old military board and set up the Public Works Department as the agent for carrying out his great programme of public works. These works comprised the extension of irrigation projects, such as the Ganges canal, which had already begun. They included a great roads programme, thereby fulfilling Bentinck’s hopes, of which the most striking feature was the Grand Trunk Road from Calcutta to Peshawar.”

Sir John Lawrence carried forward the work done in Canning’s time and the policy on public works continued in his time too but with renewed force. PWD men were engaged around the time of the Mutiny to construct buildings. Only seven years later, consulting architects were appointed to construct public buildings. Thereafter, associates and fellows of the Royal Institute of British Architects were commissioned to take up these projects. Little wonder some of the most imposing buildings came up in the city, its outskirts and the districts too. Some Anglo Indian architects were also engaged.

Indeed, the design sense and quality of workmanship of PWD has deteriorated over the years. The PWD is very prolific and continues to construct public buildings all over the place which characteristically resemble concrete and glass boxes. These turn into pressure cookers in summers. But that can be said of most buildings which have come up in the city in recent times.

(Top) The 1881 plan of Writers’ Buildings; (above) blueprints of two famous schools in Darjeeling designed by the public works department. Pictures by Bishwarup Dutta

Now the PWD is in charge of some of the most important public buildings in the city and the districts such as the Writers’ Buildings, Raj Bhavan, Medical College, Assembly and the high court.

The PWD has set up a small museum in Commissariat Road in Hastings which houses some original plans and blueprints of bridges and buildings constructed by the PWD in pre and post-Independence times. There are the blueprints and plans of Sevoke bridge (now known as Tiger bridge) of 1924, Tista bridge, Traffic Control Police barracks of Pora Bazar, of Diocesan Girls School of 1914, St Paul’s School Darjeeling of 1913 and of the Post and Telegraphs Office of 1915 of that hill town.

There are some letters from Burn & Co Ltd, Jessop & Co, from the headmaster of Victoria School, Kurseong, and from Turner, Morrison & Co Ltd, which was a managing agent. Its office still exists in Lyon’s Range. There is a hand receipt from a PWD voucher and the design of a spiral staircase by Burn & Co. There is a register of buildings in Presidency and Eastern circles and money receipts and a gate pass of the government of Bengal.

More interestingly, there is plan of Writers’ Buildings of 1881 vintage, when balustrades, terracotta ornaments, arches and acanthus were added to it. It was signed by EJ Martin, superintending engineer, central circle, April 1881.

PWD once used to manufacture bricks and a couple of these have been displayed here along with crockery bearing the PWD mark. This is not a big or important enough collection to deserve being called a museum, but perhaps it will grow.

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