A few years ago, an air-conditioner manufacturing factory near the Kidderpore dockyard, on Hyde Road, and its adjoining godown always hummed with activity.
Today, the factory lies idle, the result of a shutdown and subsequent legal complications. But people continue to walk in and out of the open gate. They have nothing to do with air-conditioners; instead, they deal in firearms and bombs, some of which were used in Tuesday’s streetfight between port mafia gangs backed by Citu and Intuc.
The past few years have been particularly unkind to the rows of godowns and factories along Kachchi Sadak, Hyde Road, Taratala Road, extending up to Brace Bridge, that once contributed to the city port’s rise. From being the hub of commerce, there was a period when all activity came to a standstill here. Now, a parallel economy operates here and even the owners of these factories, godowns and yards are afraid to visit them.
According to a rough police estimate, nearly a fifth of the area’s factories and godowns may have shut down forever, affording the mafia more space for stockpiling ammunition. Just opposite the closed refrigeration-making unit is the Bengal Ingot unit, also in a coma. So is the MAMC unit, the Metal Box factory and godown, the unused railway yards in the docks.... The list is endless.
Officials say they have conducted several raids on these hideouts in the recent past. One such raid, barely a week before Tuesday’s streetfight, on an unused “shelter” on Circular Garden Reach Road, yielded a cache of five firearms.
“And the months before that have yielded at least 40 pieces of arms,” a senior Calcutta Police officer said, adding that almost all the raids were on desolate units. “We suspect that a few of them have now become arms-manufacturing units,” he added.
Most of the shutdown godown and factories had Citu-controlled unions; a few were Intuc affiliates. As soon as a business fled, the union would take over, often engaging in litigation to prevent the former from disposing of the property.
Employing guards is counter-productive, say officials, as they enter into “agreements” with the unions. “We have to live here,” was what a security guard employed at a private-sector unit said on Thursday. The unit closed down in the 1990s. The “understanding” allows union members and their “friends” free access to the property.
Even running units managed by government agencies are not immune. A particular stretch of land near the waterfront, belonging to the Central Inland Waterways Transport Corporation (CIWTC), has aroused suspicion. “The area is peopled by labourers and it’s not possible to distinguish the gun-runner from the genuine labourer,” a senior CIWTC official admitted. Fencing and extra lights will be arranged to keep the area “trouble-free”.
“This is why we are returning the unused godown we took on rent from the Calcutta Port Trust (CPT),” said CIWTC chairman-cum-managing director Praful Tayal. The CPT takes the help of police to remove “encroachers and undesirable elements”. “There are many dilapidated buildings, formerly used as godowns, just outside the docks,” deputy chairman M.A. Bhaskarachar said. “We have also asked police to help us remove the unauthorised entrants from unused land,” he added.
The CPT is working over-time to introduce a railway link to “three or four unused godowns” in dock no. 2, so that they do not lie idle.
“We are planning to launch a campaign against all encroachers in the area,” deputy commissioner (port) O.P. Gupta said. “Police protection is always there for the firms that operate from this belt,” he added.