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HC prods Mamata on Metro

- Go-slow signal to tunnel borer

May 19: Calcutta High Court has put the onus on chief minister Mamata Banerjee to ensure that the East-West Metro project continues uninterrupted despite new challenges cropping up.

"Please request the chief minister to take up the problems the project is facing with the central government so that these can be solved as early as possible," Justice Dipankar Datta told state advocate general Kishore Dutta while hearing the petition filed by construction company Afcons last Tuesday.

He directed the registrar-general of the court to send copies of his order to the chief minister and the Union government.

To Afcons, he suggested slowing down the speed of the tunnel-boring machines from 14 metres a day to 5 metres so that the authorities get more time to remove the hurdles.

The reason for Afcons seeking judicial intervention is uncertainty over the progress of the tunnels being bored from the Howrah side towards Esplanade after it emerged that some structurally weak buildings along Brabourne Road might have to be evacuated.

The tunnel-boring machines would need to pass under 25 buildings on Brabourne Road that are in a "poor" or "very poor" condition. Another hurdle is getting permission from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to build the proposed Mahakaran station within 100 metres of three heritage buildings in the BBD Bag area.

The Kolkata Metro Rail Corporation (KMRC), which is the implementing agency for the project, has requested the Calcutta Municipal Corporation to get the buildings renovated by their owners or evacuate the occupants till such time the tunnels pass by.

The east-bound tunnel is currently under the Hooghly riverbed and is scheduled to reach Brabourne Road by the first week of June. "The TBM (tunnel-boring machine) that is under the Hooghly cannot be stopped. Once stopped, the machine will sink. But the governments (state and Centre) are not paying heed to demands for evacuation of the buildings in its path, besides seeking approval from the ASI for construction near three heritage structures," lawyer Jayanta Mitra, who is representing Afcons, said.

Justice Datta asked the advocate general to speak to the civic authorities about shifting the occupants of the unstable buildings elsewhere for 15 to 20 days so that the structures could be strengthened.

One of these buildings houses a hotel. "Since the hotel has to be closed for at least 20 days, this court is sending a notice to the owner, asking him to the attend the hearing on June 6," the judge said.

The KMRC had written to the state transport department on Thursday, stating what it needed to take the TBMs under Brabourne Road. The list includes access to the buildings for survey and monitoring, permission for propping, supporting and grouting before and during the passage of the tunnels and assistance in the event of evacuation being required.

Additional solicitor-general Kaushik Chanda informed the court that the Union cabinet had approved a bill to amend the act governing infrastructure development near monuments so that projects in national interest like the East-West Metro are not stalled.

HERITAGE SYMBOLS IN CONSTRUCTION ZONE

The presence of three heritage buildings within 100 metres of the proposed site of the Mahakaran station had seemed an insurmountable hurdle for the East-West Metro until the Union cabinet approved an amendment to the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958. The move is meant to insulate a project of national importance from the law that bars construction activity in an area with heritage structures. Soumitra Das highlights what is special about the three BBD Bag buildings in the East-West Metro’s way

CURRENCY BUILDING

• A rare example of the Italian style of architecture in Calcutta. A massive and handsome corner building — at Dalhousie Square — the that was once floored up to the third storey with Italian marble. Has a symmetrical facade, nine bays wide, and a central portico spanning three bays. The portico emphasises its grandeur. 
• One enters through a giant wrought iron gate of ornate design. The gate was made by Harris & Gibbs of Bristol, England. Its name is emblazoned on it.
• lConstructed in 1868, it originally housed the Agra and Masterman’s Bank. The bank went into the red and the government bought it for its currency department. New note forms were kept in giant iron safes; a working reserve of silver was kept inside a massive masonry vault fortified with two sets of iron doors and a grate of prodigious strength.
• Till the 1960s it served as the Currency Department, but after the new Reserve Bank of India Building came up north-west of Laldighi, some of the offices moved there. The building, with a grand central hall, was in use till 1994-end. 
• The Central Public Works Department (CPWD) declared it “unsafe” in 1987 without citing any reason. It planned to pull it down and construct a high-rise building. 
• Demolition began on October 19, 1996, and the CPWD would have razed the building had the Calcutta Municipal Corporation and Intach not raised objections. But the damage was done. 
• The CPWD contractor had dismantled the three massive domes over its central hall, barrel vault, the single-storeyed portion on the southern side, the north-eastern first floor roof on the eastern side and the joists. Valuable materials like Italian marble, Burma teak, iron chests were smuggled out.
• The central hall is now open to the elements. The occasionally chipped but mostly intact green tiles on the dado bear the imprint of the Arts & Crafts Movement that began in Britain around 1880. The nettled pattern is the distinguishing mark. The Archaeological Survey of India took it over in 2003. The Currency Building is still spectacular, from a distance.

MAGHEN DAVID SYNAGOGUE

• The elegant spire of the Italian Renaissance-style Maghen David synagogue stands out amidst the concrete jungle of Brabourne Road. There are hardly enough Jews left in Calcutta to call it a community; they used to be 5,000-strong at the height of their prosperity during World War II.
• There were once five synagogues in Calcutta, of which three remain, all of them well looked after. The first Jew to come to Calcutta in 1797 was Shalom Aaron Cohen. Moses Duek Cohen, an exile from Spain, founded the Jewish community in Calcutta and was its first president. His photograph hangs in the Maghen David synagogue in Burrabazar, along with those of other Jewish gentlemen. 
• Among them is the portrait in oil of Elias David Joseph Ezra, who constructed this synagogue to the memory of his father in 1884. The Ezras built such spectacular apartment blocks as Chowringhee Mansion, Esplanade Mansion and Ezra Mansion. Calcutta’s Jewry lived along Armenian Street and Bowbazar and gradually moved south of Park Street.
• This synagogue has a handsome portico, but a building that probably came up in the 1950s blocked the view from Brabourne Road. The spire, of course, cannot be missed. The delicate blue and white decoration on the wall inside the main hall of the synagogue, the chandeliers, the enclosure where the Torah used to be kept and the representation of the firmament with golden stars on the vaulting ceiling make it one of the most breathtaking places of worship in this part of the world. 
• Adjacent to it is the inconspicuous Neveh Shalome Synagogue, the first formal synagogue to be constructed in this city. This synagogue too has been restored of late.

BETH EL SYNAGOGUE

• The Beth El Synagogue is on Pollock Street. The voluminous rear section of this place of worship rises above the shops with tin roofs along Brabourne Road. This was the second synagogue in Calcutta.
• lIt has a raised pediment with a clock made by Cooke & Kelvey above the entrance. The Star of David and menorahs, the seven-lamp (six branches) ancient Hebrew lampstand, are depicted on the facade. A high arched window with beautiful stained glass spans the entrance. Glowing blue and red flowers bloom on the glass.

FOOTNOTE: In anticipation of the tunnel-boring operation, the Jewish community has taken upon itself the task 
of reinforcing both the Maghen David and Beth-El synagogues. 


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