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Back to the British drawing board for Writers’ restoration

Mamata Banerjee’s dream of restoring Writers’ Buildings to the pre-Independence era of uncluttered workspaces in a heritage structure unsullied by ungainly annexes is about to take shape.

Sources said the chief minister sat through a presentation recently and gave her nod to appointing two reputable consultants to help execute the project, which will cost an estimated Rs 200 crore.

The plan is to strip the state secretariat of its post-Independence additions and restore the façade to a semblance of the structure that Thomas Lyon had designed for the British East India Company in 1777.

The interiors, of course, would be more to Mamata’s specifications than what the junior servants or writers of the East India Company would have required back then.

An official said workspaces across the floors would be made more functional along with the addition of well-equipped conference rooms and other such facilities.

Writers’ will also cease to be a humongous seat of bureaucracy housing 34 departments and several directorates with a combined strength of nearly 6,000 employees, many of whom might gladly stay home if that were to be an option. Since the Writers’ reconstruction plan allows for no such concession, at least six departments will be relocated to other government buildings in the city, sources said.

“If the plan materialises, Writers’ would be more like what it was in 1945 with far fewer departments and only a handful of employees posted here,” an official said.

The public works department would be asked to pull down four blocks constructed in the post-Independence period — E, F, G & CGA — to reduce the size of the 5.5 lakh sq ft secretariat by 17,302sq ft.

“The temporary structures added to the verandahs to house more departments will be removed as well to restore Writers’ to its original design as much as architecturally possible,” an official said.

The internal changes include constructing a new cabinet room on the first floor and a well-equipped cabinet secretariat by remodelling the rotunda. The information and cultural affairs department, seen as a favourite of the chief minister, will get better furnished premises. The police and disaster control rooms will be at Writers’.

Vikas Dilawari, a conservation architect based in Mumbai, said Writers’ was “such an exceptional building” that having “good advisers” was as crucial to restoring it as following a proper brief.

He recommended a competition to select the best talents to work on the plan.

“If their only aim is to remove unwanted structures and restore Writers’ to its former glory, they should consult the original design plans. All British buildings had these. If something emerges, say a garden, they should conserve it. This was done both for the Bombay GPO and VT station,” Dilawari said.

“For Patiala House in Dehradun, all unnecessary structures were removed. Nobody could have guessed there was this beautiful building behind the clutter. ONGC wanted to set up an oil museum there.”

Mamata had made clear her intention to declutter the secretariat soon after the change of guard in May 2011 after 34 years of Left rule. One of the first things she did was to order the dismantling of a photo gallery in front of her office, saying that it was blocking sunlight.

The chief minister also got her chamber refurbished, footing the bill herself. The offices of several other ministers got a makeover too. The press corner on the first floor was renovated and the corridors in different blocks rid of tea and food stalls.

For a section of babudom comparing Mamata’s plan with Muhammad bin Tughlaq shifting the Mughal capital from Delhi to Daulatabad in 1327, the prospect of shifting to offices that might entail travelling the extra kilometre daily seems more disconcerting than any strain on the exchequer.

“The state government plans to shift several departments to the Hooghly River Bridge Commissioners-owned building in Howrah. This will mean spending at least Rs 50 crore in converting the building into offices,” an official said.

The departments of western region development affairs, self-help groups and environment have already been relocated to Poura Bhavan in Salt Lake.