Fair books profit at state's cost

The cash-strapped Mamata Banerjee government has waived 50 per cent of the rent for Milan Mela to benefit the private organisers of the Calcutta Book Fair, again doing exactly what the chief minister had once criticised her predecessor Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee for.

Mamata's sop for the book fair comes amid her routine rant about Bengal's financial problems and the burden of debt that the Left Front had saddled her with.

"We have paid 50 per cent of the fairground's rent (Rs 48 lakh) to the government this year," said Tridib Chattopadhyay, the secretary of the Publishers and Booksellers' Guild. "We have also sought waivers under a few other heads. The government is yet to respond."

The guild had previously enjoyed the patronage of the erstwhile Left Front government, much to Mamata's annoyance. She would often accuse her predecessor of turning the book fair into his fief.

For the guild, it apparently doesn't matter who is in power as long as there are sops to be claimed by christening itself an "NGO" dedicated to the cause of popularising books in Bengal and beyond.

The guild had paid around Rs 25 lakh in rent for using Milan Mela in 2012. The discount given by the Mamata government worked out to over 66 per cent.

This year, it has paid almost double the amount but the discount is still 50 per cent because Milan Mela's rent has increased to around Rs 1 crore for 10 days.

The guild was apparently asked to pay a part of the pending rent first. The trade-off was that this year's rent would be halved, an official said.

The fire services department too has decided to charge half the amount it would have earned for a 10-day fair at Milan Mela. "The cost of deploying a fire tender is around Rs 5,000 a day. Three of them will be stationed at the ground. There are additional charges amounting to Rs 6.7 lakh. But we have settled for around Rs 3 lakh," a fire department official said.

While the guild continues to enjoy a huge discount, it has raised the rent for stalls by 15 per cent. A 400sqft stall that a publisher or seller could set up by paying Rs 12,000 last year now costs Rs 16,500.

"Prices of almost everything have gone up over the past year. So we had little choice but to raise the stall rates by 15 to 20 per cent," guild secretary Chattopadhyay said.

An officer in the finance department's internal audit wing said the over 50 per cent discount was an undue favour, going by the book. "The guild is a private organisation of publishers. Why should it enjoy a financial benefit at a time when the state is struggling to pay salaries to its employees?"

Not that chief minister Mamata is blind to how bare the exchequer is. It's just that she bemoans the state of Bengal's finances one moment and doles out sops at the other.

On January 11, Mamata distributed Rs 40.09 crore among 2,395 clubs and promised to keep the funds flowing over the next five years, raising questions about how a government reeling under a debt burden of Rs 2.2 lakh crore could afford to grant such largesse. The money had been channelled through the plan head of the sport's department.

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