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A land scam case
The old seamen’s church building at Hastings, as it was and (below) the way it looks now. File pictures

The case of the old seamen’s church in Hastings has been hanging fire for a long time. One needn’t be a conservationist or an admirer of old buildings to take interest in this case, for it is really a land scam, as even a casual perusal of its bare facts will reveal.

The building was first used as a seamen’s church and later it became a clinic. The people, who once squatted inside it, were removed quite some time ago. The jungles of weeds that had grown behind this ancient and beautiful structure standing on about 9,000 sq ft have been removed and new buildings have come up on both sides. A wall has come up in front so that from Clyde Row, on which it stands, only the top half of it is visible. The building has been shrouded in mystery ever since it was auctioned in the 1950s for a paltry Rs 7,000.

The Central Public Works Department (CPWD) had taken over charge of the building in 1954. In 1939, the Seamen’s Welfare Association (SWA) acquired the building from the Calcutta Diocesan Trust Association.

The management and control of the premises were handed over to the port health officer in 1948 for a rent of Re 1 per month, payable to the SWA. Payment of ground rent, municipal taxes and carrying out repairs were the liability of the port health officer — terms approved by the director-general of health services (DGHS) under the Union ministry of health.

Though the CPWD had taken over control of the premises (maintenance and payment of taxes) from the DGHS under the ministry of health in 1954, the port health officer continued to run the seamen’s clinic there. But the CPWD had neglected to pay ground rent totalling Rs 271 and 5 annas from April 1, 1954 to September 30, 1957, to the state government through the Khasmahal collector, 24-Parganas. So, the Khasmahal certificate officer sold the building by auction on May 22, 1957, for Rs 7,000 to a man named R.K. Burman, whose identity has remained vague and nebulous.

Perhaps sensing that something was amiss, on August 28, 1957, the government of India, through the executive engineer, CPWD, had filed a petition along with the SWA to set aside the sale. Since then, the case has dragged. Appeals have been filed and dismissed several times.

The Union of India, through the executive engineer, CPWD, filed a petition to be party in the civil suit that was granted. On June 12, 1962, the rule was made absolute by Calcutta High Court. Despite the legal wrangle, the clinic operated there all the while.

Ironically, while the CPWD has practically given up the case, another government organisation, Port Health Organisation (PHO), the added defendant in this case, had appealed to the divisional bench against the high court verdict in favour of plaintiff R.K. Burman.

The building became derelict after the CPWD told the PHO to vacate the building in 1996. After it was abandoned in 1996, the two-storeyed building at 6 Clyde Row turned into a squatters’ haven. It would be interesting to see what turn the case takes.

For thanks to the CPWD, Currency Building in Dalhousie Square is lying half destroyed for years now.

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