India's West Bengal government moves out of Writers Buildings

Writers Building The headquarters of the West Bengal government is an iconic building

The government of India's eastern state of West Bengal has moved out of the historic Writers Buildings in the capital, Calcutta, so that the 236-year-old building can receive a much-needed renovation. Subir Bhaumik reports.

The Writers Buildings, that was built for writers or clerks of the British East India Company in 1777, is a red-brick heritage building that reminds Calcutta of its heyday as the capital of the British Indian empire.

Designed by architect Thomas Lyon, the Writers Buildings wears a classic Greco-Roman look despite several extensions over the centuries.

When the British empire shifted the capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911, the building became the seat of the government of undivided Bengal, British India's largest province. After Independence, it became the headquarters of the West Bengal government.

But over the years, the condition of the building has deteriorated.

British journalist Geoffrey Moorhouse, author of a well-known book on Calcutta, once wrote that the building looked like a "shabby hospital or poorhouse".

Last week, nearly 3,000 of the 4,500 government workers, along with tens of thousands of dog-eared files and tonnes of furniture and office equipment, moved out of Writers Buildings to a 15-storey high-rise in the decaying neighbouring suburb of Howrah, across the Hooghly river.

'Herculean task'

Eleven government departments housed in the building have shifted in a move that has cost the government $32m (£20m).

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee set a two-month deadline for the move so that the building could be renovated and made fire-proof - more than a dozen small fires have been been reported here in the last two decades.

"My department alone had to move 8,000 files, 50 computers, 15 telephones, 25 typewriters, 20 photocopiers and lots of furniture," says Ashoke Majumdar, chief official of the information and cultural affairs department, one of the smaller offices.

An employee of the state government of West Bengal takes a nap in the empty office at the state secretariat building called Writers Building, in Kolkata on October 3, 2013 Nearly a dozen government departments have moved out of Writers Buildings

Minister Sudarshan Ghosh Dastidar said moving the government was a "herculean job".

"We will now convert the Writers Buildings into a modern workspace but without compromising on its heritage value and existing design," he told the BBC.

The move has been sharply criticised by the state's main opposition Communist Party of India (Marxist).

"No government can be run from a place so far away from the capital city," said Marxist leader and former minister Gautam Deb.

The blue-and-white multi-storey building in Howrah where the government has moved was originally designed as a textiles business hub by the state's former Marxist government. But the hub never took off.

"What if I begin to like this place?" the chief minister wondered aloud on the day her government moved into the new building.

"Madam, as chief minister, you can easily keep two offices," a young bureaucrat answered.

But many employees do not appear happy with the move - commuting to their new office in congested Howrah from Calcutta takes more time, and on the very first day, many of the elevators were not working.

"This is a tall building unlike Writers, so we just cannot walk up," complained Bidyut Ghosh, a government worker.

But, for the next two years, the nondescript high-rise in Howrah is destined to remain the new headquarters of West Bengal's government.

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