Haldia port cargo handler quits West Bengal over safety concerns

Haldia: A private firm handling cargo at the Haldia port in West Bengal has pulled out of the project, announcing on Wednesday that state was not providing it with a secure environment to work in. There have been a series of incidents, including an "abduction" of some of its employees that the firm claims are aimed at forcing it to leave the state.

The abduction had taken place early on Sunday but on Tuesday Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had dismissed the trouble at Haldia saying "nothing had happened there". She instead chose to blame a section of the media for making up the story to suit its interests. "Nothing has happened in Haldia. Everything is peaceful there. The administration and police are doing their work. A section of the media with vested interest is exaggerating things and trying to malign the government," Ms Banerjee said in Kolkata.

The Kolkata Port Trust, with which the cargo handler had entered into a contract, has refused to accept its termination of contract. It is writing to it to continue operations or else have its machinery impounded and pay penalty for breach of contract.

Many are comparing the situation in Haldia to what happened at Singur, where Tata officials working on setting up the Nano car plant were also threatened by Trinamool supporters. The Tatas too finally pulled out of West Bengal and took the plant to Gujarat instead.

The ongoing tussle between Haldia Bulk Terminals (HBT) and the Kolkata Port Trust (KoPT) began end August when HBT complained it was suffering losses as it was not getting sufficient cargo. It claimed it had been promised 9 million tonnes of cargo per year but was getting only about 5 million tonnes. KoPT denied there was any guarantee of minimum cargo in its contract with HBT.

HBT claimed that instead of sending more ships for mechanised unloading, KoPT was sending the ships to other berths for manual unloading. Mechanised unloading was faster and KoPT earned more revenue from HBT operations. But, HBT claimed, port authorities were continuing to patronise manual cargo handlers because at least one of those companies was linked to a Trinamool MP.

Then labour trouble began. On 24th September HBT sacked 275 workers, all of them belonging to the Trinamool union led by MP Shubhendu Adhikari.

Matters went to court which ordered the state to provide security to HBT workers at the dock. HBT was asked to pay for the security, which it did at the rate of Rs 1.75 lakh per day for 65 policemen posted. The court also ordered HBT and KoPT to settle the issue of cargo which they agreed to do.

However, the court's order was interpreted by workers of manual cargo companies as an order in favour of HBT and they gheraoed the KoPT offices in Haldia. They claimed that if HBT was given more cargo, the manual cargo handling companies would go bust and the workers would lose their job.

In this tense and uneasy situation, late on Saturday night, three HBT officials and the family of one of them were "abducted" at gunpoint by unidentified miscreants. The "abducted" officials were driven to Mecheda some distance away from Haldia, put on a Kolkata bound train and told never to return to Haldia.

On Monday, the local police chief claimed no one was kidnapped and that the three HBT officers had left Haldia on their own free will.

Some say that HBT was claiming abduction and a bad law and order situation so it could break its contract with KoPT and avoid paying penalty. Port officials and others in Haldia claim HBT had quoted a very low rate in the global tender for mechanised cargo handling in Haldia. It was now unable to make profits and therefore wanted to wriggle out of the situation. HBT had signed a 10 year contract with KoPT. If it broke the contract, it would have to pay penalty. If it could prove that they were driven out of Haldia because of a law and order situation, they may be able to avoid paying penalty. In fact, they could claim compensation.

In its statement today, HBT said, "The ever worsening situation at Haldia has left us feeling betrayed and we hope that the elements responsible for driving us out of Haldia are brought to justice... The economy of West Bengal has once again been denied the opportunity of growth, modernisation and development."

State Congress president Pradip Bhattacharya used the opportunity to attack the Mamata government. "The Bengal government has started a war against the industry. By creating a vicious environment it wants to drive away industry. The Congress will battle against the state government's war against industrialisation," he said in Kolkata.