Built to accommodate the East India Company's junior staff, or the "writers" as they were called and after whom the building was eponymously named, it was the city's first three-storied building and from where the British once ruled India.
The Mamata Banerjee government has decided to shift the state secretariat out of the Writers' to allow renovation and restoration of the heritage complex, which over time has become a "tinderbox" with a disaster waiting to happen because of warnings of inadequate fire and structural safety.
Chief Minister Banerjee's announcement about relocating the secretariat to neighbouring Howrah city for the entire duration of the restoration has evoked strong responses. From experts to laymen, all have their opinions - slamming or supporting the unprecedented move.
The facelift of the red-stone edifice, built around 1780, is part of Banerjee's "London dreams" - her grand idea of sprucing up the eastern metropolis to give parts of it at least look like the heritage-protected parts of the British capital.
"Much like heritage buildings in London, its facade would be kept intact with the interiors refurbished to incorporate modern safety and security arrangements," a top official of the Public Works Department (PWD) told IANS, requesting anonymity.
While the idea of restoration has been welcomed, the decision to shift the secretariat to Howrah across the Ganges, has sent the workforce into a tizzy.
"Shifting the secretariat with its entire infrastructure is just impossible. It will paralyse the whole administration," Malay Mukherjee of the Congress affiliated employees' union told IANS.
"Writers' is a treasure of historic documents, many of them from the British era. Who will bear the responsibility if these documents are lost or destroyed?" asked Ananta Bandopadhyay of the Left affiliated Coordination Committee of the employees.
Both the unions have planned mass movements against the Oct 1 shifting of the secretariat to the 14-storied HRBC building in Howrah.
However, the Trinamool Congress affiliated employees' union feels the decision was long overdue.
"If the building is not repaired, along with valuable documents, hundreds or may be thousands of lives may be lost as a fire tragedy may happen any time," said Soumya Biswas of the union.
Regal and Gothic in appearance, the Writers' has hosted varied political masters - from the imperialists to communists and now the 'didi' regime, as Mamata Banerjee is popularly known.
Apart from the political battles, it witnessed a battle of bullets when the Indian revolutionary trio of Benoy (Basu), Badal (Gupta) and Dinesh (Gupta) shot dead N.S. Simpson - the brutal and oppressive Inspector General of Prisons, inside the secretariat building on December 8, 1930. It's in honour of the trio that the area where Writers' stands is named BBD Bag.
"Designed by Thomas Lyon, Writers' was constructed on behalf of Richard Barwell, a council member during Warren Hastings tenure as governor general. The property remained in private hands till 1854 when the Company officially bought it," noted Kolkata chronicler P.T. Nair said.
Nair, who has penned over 50 books on the city, said the secretariat was created during the 1870s after the British felt the need for a one-stop administrative centre.
"Because of its centralised location with other important offices close by, the British ruled the country from Writers' for years".
Describing it as one of the city's strongest buildings, Nair said a reddish customised emulsion was used to bind the red bricks which eventually gave the structure its trademark colour.
Like many others, Nair too is not happy with the decision to shift the secretariat.
"I've never heard of any instance in modern times of an entire secretariat being shifted to another city to accommodate repairs. Is it practicable? I doubt," Nair told IANS.
While the septuagenarian is not opposed to the proposed repairs, he has one apprehension: "Hope they don't paint it blue and white", referring to the Banerjee administration's penchant for daubing government structures in the chief minister's favourite colours.
Though the fire and the disaster management departments have been recommending urgent overhauling, Banerjee's announcement has seemingly caught many unaware.
The PWD department is still "in the process of consulting experts" and "preparing a detailed map for the proposed reconstruction".
"We will then make a presentation to the chief minister," the PWD official said.
Questions are also being raised over efficacy of the exercise.
"For such a work, it is essential to have a panel of experts and a detailed restoration roadmap. It is important that people entrusted are aware of the consequences of their actions and the value of the building. Otherwise, it becomes difficult," Santosh Ghosh president, Centre for Built Environment - a forum of architectural experts, designers and planners - told IANS.
To which PWD Minister Sudarshan Ghosh-Dastidar said experts from the Jadavpur and Bengal Engineering and Science universities would be involved. There is no official word on how much the restoration would cost but some experts put the figure at Rs.200 crore.
(Anurag Dey can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
--IANS (Posted on 10-08-2013)