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Cargo-handling firm pulls out of India port

Publication Date : 01-11-2012


Haldia Bulk Terminal Services (HBTS), a joint venture of ABG-LDA earning the highest revenue for Bengal’s trouble-ridden Haldia Dock Complex (HDC), yesterday announced its decision to quit the complex blaming the Indian state government for not providing a secure environment for it to work in.

The company communicated its decision to both Kolkata Port Trust (KoPT) and Calcutta High Court during the day. Only a couple of days ago three of its officials had  allegedly been forced out of Haldia at gun point in the dead of the night. It complained a series of incidents had been engineered to force it to leave the state.

However, Trinamul Congress Lok Sabha MP Saugata Roy, who was appointed an adviser to the state industry department by the chief minister, said  he did not think it would have any long-term impact on industrial development in the state. “This is newspaper fodder for two days.”

He also said that the state government wasn't responsible for the problems at Haldia Port. “I think the company is responsible for the present mess. I think they wanted to pull out.” 

Gurpreet Malhi, CEO, HBTS said: “With a deep sense of disappointment we have to inform that we have been left with no option but to walk out of the HDC with immediate effect. 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.” 

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee yesterday dismissed the trouble at Haldia as “nothing” and blamed a section of the media for “making up a story” to suit some business interests and the Communist Party of India-Marxist. 

Even, the Trinamul Congress MP Subhendu Adhikari said: “The law and order situation within the docks is a state subject, but the security within the port is the responsibility of the Central Industrial Security Force, a Union government agency. The state government has no role in it”.

He said: “A handling agent with poor track record in Mumbai and Kandla ports was being passed off  as an industrialist. We cannot accept the retrenchment of 275 workers by SMS before the festival.’’

In a statement, Malhi said: “We have been instrumental in the revival of the Haldia Dock Complex through the mechanisation of berths which has resulted in a more than three-fold increase in productivity to more than 20,000 tpd/berth and a big jump in profits for KoPT, improved facilities for KoPT’s clients and increased gainful employment for the state and have successfully run an operation of world class standards for the past two years. The appreciation from large and small companies as well as the bottomline of KoPT bears testimony to the same.” 

 The HBTS, which started operation in 2010 at berths 2 and 8 of HDC in 2010, played a key role in pulling HDC out of  a deep financial crisis in which the KoPT had recorded a loss of revenue of Rs 316 crore between 2007 and 2010.

But, this year in September, HBTS threatened to suspend its work citing losses due to low volume of cargo handling. KoPT moved Calcutta High Court and on September 12 signed an agreement with HBTS agreeing to allocate vessels to HBTS’s berths on a priority basis. 

Workers at the port’s manually handled berths, however, objected to this and blocked the move. They also allegedly attacked HBTS workers and prevented them from continuing their work, leading to a deterioration of law and order in the Haldia dock complex. 

In a press release, Malhi said: “The economy of West Bengal has once again been denied the opportunity of growth, modernisation and development. Indian and foreign investors will succeed in finding other locations which are investor-friendly and conducive to business. Sooner rather than later, West Bengal will have to choose to make itself attractive and viable for investors, otherwise investment and progress will continue to elude the state.”

The HBTS submitted before Justice Sambuddha Chakraborty of Calcutta High Court a copy of the letter it had sent to the trustee board of the KoPT to terminate the contract it had with KoPT to continue its supply operation and maintenance of cargo handling equipment at berths 2 and 8.

The matter is scheduled to be heard on Friday.

In a seven-page letter, the HBTS management accused the KoPT authorities of not redressing the its grievances for which it had to suffer heavy losses. Earlier, it had  informed the KoPT that it would be constrained to suspend cargo handling operations.

Even when HBTS agreed not to suspend cargo handling operations after an order of the Calcutta High Court, vested interests within the HDC opposed the implementation of the agreement and  decided  that it “ would go to any length to do so, the letter stated.” The actions of the KoPT was designed to allow vested interests to frustrate the implementation of the agreement, it was alleged .

No security was provided to safeguard the employees / officers and property of HBTS,  it was pointed out. When KoPT was called upon by HBTS to take immediate action to secure the safety of the latter's employees and  equipment, it did not do so. 

It is clear that KoPT "aided, abetted and facilitated the said vested interests and allowed them to interfere with HBTS' operations in berth number two and eight”, the letter alleged. Several first information reports and private complaints were filed with the district administration and the KoPT was kept informed of the lack of peaceful and conducive environment at berths two and eight, the letter pointed out.

Without taking a pro-active stance to implement the Calcutta High Court's order to safeguard the operations at berth two and eight, the KoPT continued to exert pressure on HBTS to clear cargo in berth numbers two and eight, it was alleged. Besides KoPT never intended to carry out its obligations under the agreement and “deceitfully induced HBTS from entering the agreement” it was alleged.

These grounds inter alia have led to the termination of the agreement by HBT, the letter stated.

The state government's failure to provide security to HBTS at the dock leading to its decision to quit the complex will send a wrong signal to prospective investors, Congress spokesman Abdul Mannan said.
“It is regrettable that the Trinamul Congress state government is eagerly working to protect the vested interests of one of its MPs," Mannan said.

Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India Secretary General  D.S. Rawat said : “The decision to exit won't have any impact on investment flow in the long run, but the state government should not delay action against those who are taking the law in their hand.”

Rawat suggested the chief minister should set up a fact finding committee and send strong signal that the law abiding citizens/investors would be fully protected, encouraged and motivated.

Left Front chairman Biman Bose said the day's development would lead to economic disaster for the entire region.


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