Bengal Communists to sell 'icon of colonial decadence'

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The Independent Online

The marble floors are stained, the once-opulent ballrooms empty but for a few off-duty civil servants who have had too much to drink. A musty smell permeates the corridors, the upholstery is coming apart, and the plumbing is far from reliable.

A room will only set you back £12 a night, but many visitors think it is dear at the price. It was once renowned as the "Jewel of the East", the best hotel in India - but today the Great Eastern Hotel in Calcutta is slowly mouldering into ruin.

Not for much longer. As part of a privatisation scheme funded by Britain's Department for International Development (DfID), West Bengal's Communist state government, which has owned the hotel for years, is planning to sell it to a private company for renovation. The West Bengal government hopes that the Great Eastern will be restored to its former glory as a five-star hotel.

Although it's hard to believe today, the Great Eastern was once famed for its black-tie balls, complete with Egyptian belly dancers and Parisian showgirls to entertain the guests.

These days, it's pretty hard to find game pie and cold lobster in Calcutta, a city better known for its poverty and a vast homeless population, but they were on the menu at the Great Eastern in its heyday.

When it was built in 1840 - it was called the Auckland then - it was colonial India's first hotel. At the time, Calcutta was the capital of British-ruled India.

In 1857, during the Indian Mutiny - or Uprising, as it is known in India today - the hotel was used as a barracks for British soldiers.

In 1915, it was described in a guidebook as "the finest hotel in the capital of India".

In 1960, former glories were rekindled when the hotel was taken over by the British again - this time to house the Queen's entourage during a state visit to independent India. But since then it has suffered a long slide into neglect and decay.

To many observers, the hotel has become a symbol of the failures of the Communist Party, which has ruled West Bengal for the past two decades. Long after the symbols have disappeared from most of the rest of the world, the hammer and sickle are still proudly displayed around Calcutta, and Lenin's portrait still hangs in state ministers' offices.

For the Communists, the Great Eastern, with its colonial history, was an icon of decadence, and inevitably it ended up in state ownership. The recent moves to sell it are being hailed as evidence of Bengali perestroika.

Although the Communists oppose privatisation schemes at the federal level, in their fiefdom of West Bengal, they are rushing to sell off their loss-making state firms, with the help of DfID. The Great Eastern has made losses somewhere between 30 million and 40 million rupees (£390,000 to £520,000).

The West Bengal government has been trying to dispose of the Great Eastern for years. The idea was first mooted 12 years ago, and in 2001 it was nearly sold to a French hotel chain.

Previous efforts to sell it have been scuppered by tortuous negotiations with trade unions representing the hotel's staff. But now the government says the last of the hotel's employees have agreed to an early retirement scheme.

The West Bengal government is hoping the Great Eastern can follow in the footsteps of Calcutta's Grand Hotel, which was another decaying relic until an Indian hotel chain bought it and renovated it.

But that was in 1938 - it remains to be seen if the Great Eastern can rise from the ashes.