The Ministry of IT and Communications has asked the state-run telecom giant Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) and the local DoT unit to vacate the premises of the Central Telegraph Office (CTO) in Mumbai by March 29, despite repeated reservations by high-level officials within the Department of Telecom.
According to BSNL officials with direct knowledge of the matter, BSNL and the Comptroller Communication Accounts (CCA), which operate from the first and second floors of the building, have been asked to move out owing to “political pressure” from the ministry.
“They have told us that the renting of the floors is part of the revival plan to generate additional revenues (for the struggling PSU),” said officials.
Officials told NH that BSNL operates from one-half of the first floor, while the other half and the second floor is being used by the CCA.
The ground floor of the CTO building was rented to the Bombay High Court by BSNL for five years at a cost of Rs 3.24 crore on Jan 1, 2016.
However, the “political decision” to agree to rent the first and second floors of the CTO building hasn’t gone down well with officials, it has been learnt. In a communication earlier this month, officials are learnt to have conveyed their unwillingness to vacate the premises, as desired by the ministry.
It has been learnt that Bombay High Court might use both the floors, once vacated, to carry out its additional operations.
Officials flagged the redevelopment works being carried at the heritage property as a major concern, besides asking for additional office space to handle the increasing volume of operations. The CCA in Maharashtra caters to 56,000 pensioners of BSNL, expected to increase by another 19,000, noted officials.
The CTO Mumbai is a Grade II-A heritage property which is in the process of being upgraded to Grade I heritage property, it has been learnt.
According to officials, the first floor of CTO building houses records of pensioners, PVA, GPF and cash records with revision pension sections officials who deal with processing off revision of pension cases and other retirement benefits.”
Earlier this month, reservations were conveyed to the DoT head office in Delhi as officials in Mumbai expressed their inability to vacate the first floor of the CTO, say sources.
Official sources said that the latest letter from officials asking for a stay order on vacating the CTO Mumbai premises was written earlier this month. The letter also demanded that the rent agreement with the Bombay High Court for the ground floor be cancelled once it expired in 2020.
Officials in the Ministry of Law as well as telecom have told National Herald that the agreement signed between BSNL and the Bombay High Court for renting the ground floor of the heritage building was in violation of the basic norms, since BSNL wasn’t the competent authority to rent the premises.
“It’s the DoT which is the rightful owner of the property. The permission should have been sought from CCA, the custodian of DoT’s properties,” said an official.
Official sources say that it was the state government that had also given a go-ahead to the Bombay High Court to rent the ground floor of the building. They are reluctant to leave the building now, say sources.
In fact, at a high-level meeting on the retention of assets on Oct 14, 2016, at Sanchar Bhawan, attended by officials from both the DoT and BSNL, it had been unanimously agreed “BSNL shall not rent out/lease their space at the stations where CCA/TERM offices are situated without obtaining NOC from CCA office.”
The CCA is the competent authority designated as custodian of DoT’s properties across the country.
“No NOC was obtained from the CCA’s office when the ground floor of the CTO building was rented to the Bombay High Court,” officials have said.
While expressing its desire to expand the space of court premises on Sept 30, 2014, the then Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court wrote to then Minister of Communications and IT Ravi Shankar Prasad that the Bombay High Court was in dire need of space of about 25,000 square feet.
The High Court had first expressed its interest for office premises in the CTO building in a letter dated Oct 3, 2013 to Chief Manager, BSNL.
Further, the letter from the Bombay High Court urged the law minister to “waive the requirement of expression of interest” in view of the settled legal position expressed by the Supreme Court in its decision in National Resources Allocation..
“You will kindly appreciate that the requirement of the High Court performing an important sovereign function will be treated on a higher footing than the general expectation of a government department to earn higher rent from private corporate entities.”
Taking note of the redevelopment works carried out in the CTO building, the municipal architect (Mumbai) ordered a stay on the activities in view of the “alleged destruction” of the heritage building.
“Please note that the CTO building under reference, a stone building constructed in early gothic style of architecture, is included in the heritage list at Sr no. 255 in Grade IIA category and is proposed to be upgraded to Grade 1 status in the draft published list of 2012,” said the letter from the municipal official, dated March 24, 2017.
Additional rooms, new parapet walls have been carried out causing damage to the original fabric of the structure, the letter said.
“Any works to be done in such type of buildings needs to be done with all permissions from competent authorities and under supervision by experts in the field of conservation,” it said.
However, officials have told NH that the redevelopment works went on despite concerns raised by both DoT officials as well Mumbai’s municipal authorities.