By Binita Das
Kolkata, March 17 (IANS) The chunk of cement that fell from the ceiling of a heritage building missed an octogenarian former Union Minister — a tenant — but has brought to the fore the poor upkeep of the historic structures in the city, mainly due to the absence of proper laws.
Ironically, the 109-year-old Park Mansion on the iconic Park Street had received a prestigious heritage award for restoration of the colonial era structure from the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) in 2013.
West Bengal Heritage Commission (WBHC) Chairman and well-known artist Shuvaprasanna Bhattacharya said on an average two buildings of heritage value were being destroyed every day in Kolkata, the first capital of colonial India where the British East India Company had set up its base.
“It is unfortunate that in Kolkata, almost two buildings of heritage importance are destroyed every day due to the lack of proper law. I have no idea if the people are aware of this,” Bhattacharya said.
The city has as many as 1,475 heritage buildings.
Bhattacharya said due to complex ownership a huge ancestral property, which upholds the city’s culture and heritage, remains stuck in legal limbo.
“Due to this, we also cannot take up the property. Some amendments should be made to the existing laws to safeguard the heritage properties. There should be a committee to look after the interest of all the parties,” Bhattacharya said.
According to the WBHC Chairman, the exterior of the Park Mansion was maintained well and if there were problems in the interior, it should have been taken care of. “The tenants should not face any problem and, I believe, the owners will see to it,” he said.
The matter came to light on March 6 after the attendant of former Union Minister Debi Prasad Chattopadhyaya was awakened by a thud in the early hours of the day. Her foot was hurt and a cement chunk was found next to the bed-ridden Chattopadhyaya.
The family members of the 87-year-old, credited with editing the 100-plus volumes of History of Indian Science Philosophy and Culture, alleged the root of the problem was a leakage on the floor above their apartment.
“This is not the first time. Slabs had come off the ceiling earlier too. Every 5-6 years, we have do the maintenance works (like painting), which is our responsibility. But the building is rotting from inside,” said the ailing man’s daughter-in-law Supriya Chattopadhyaya.
In 2012, the leakage was noticed and conveyed to building owners, the Apeejay Surrendra Group, but in vain. Since 2016, Supriya has also approached the Kolkata Municipal Corporation several times since Park Mansion was a heritage property.
Then Director General of KMC’s Project Management Unit (PMU) Subrata K. Seal had also written that Park Mansion’s interior required repairing.
“Repair work is allowed without changing the characteristic dimension of the property. I had written the tenants can take up repair work to prevent any accident,” Seal, now holding an advisory position post-retirement, told IANS.
Seal said he had forwarded a no objection certificate (NOC) to the KMC’s Building Department, which gave permissions related to construction and repair.
PMU Deputy Chief Engineer P.S. Samanta said if the heritage building was a private property, it was the owner’s duty to do maintenance. My department could only send a request letter, he added.
For five years, the KMC has been looking after conservation of the Khidirpur Bhukailash Temple, the Dalhousie area.
However, after Sohini shared the ordeal on Facebook and the incident got media coverage, the family has received some messages from an unknown profile offering help.
Later, she also received emails from the Apeejay Group. The repair work will, probably, start after March 25.
“On March 11, I received an email from the Apeejay Group saying they will do the repair work, but haven’t committed any date,” Sohini said.
(The writer can be contacted at [email protected])