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Politics and silt choke Haldia

- Trinamul fishes in troubled waters, private operator loses lakhs

Calcutta, Sept. 25: A weak global economy, reduced depth of the Hooghly river and alleged political brinkmanship have hit the business prospects of Hadia and caused the maximum number of one-time lay-offs during the rule of the Trinamul-led government so far.

Private port operator Haldia Bulk Terminals Ltd (HBT), which sacked 275 workers yesterday, said the action was a desperate attempt to make operations viable.

“We had been deferring this (retrenchment) for many months, hoping the situation, which was not only volatile but also hostile, would become better. But it never improved. There was no other choice,” said Gurpreet Malhi, the CEO of the company. He said the downsizing would help save Rs 40 lakh a month.

HBT, which runs two berths in Haldia with mobile harbour cranes, has suspended work since last night after some of the retrenched workers allegedly threatened the existing employees. The laid-off workers today demonstrated outside and inside the dock complex demanding that they be taken back.

Port sources said a large section of these workers had been working as cargo handlers for at least 10 years. “Before working for HBT from 2010, they used to work in the non-mechanised berths,” a source said.

Sheikh Siraj, one of the sacked workers, said: “We will launch a fast-unto-death in front of the dock if we don’t get our jobs back.”

The workers demonstrated without any party flags today. The Trinamul and Citu-affiliated unions at the dock said they were against retrenchment.

HBT has also terminated the services of Five Star Shipping Agency, which helped with cargo handling, saying its existing 353 workers were enough for its two berths. Under political pressure, HBT was forced to hire 650 employees on its payrolls along with 350 contractual workers, although the requirement was for only 350.

HBT lodged an FIR saying several equipment and machine parts were stolen last night.

Two ships, Athina Carros and Nanos, carrying around 24,000 tonnes of coking coal each for SAIL and Electrosteel Castings Ltd, are stuck at the HBT-run berths 8 and 2 because of the unrest. Both ships have overstayed by four days, resulting in a loss of at least Rs 32 lakh so far for the users.

Calcutta Port Trust (CPT) chairman Manish Jain said ways must be found to bring more cargo to the Haldia facility. “Port operation has a huge impact on the economy of Bengal and the eastern region. Instead of acting on apprehensions, we must zero in on how to bring more cargo to the port.”

The CPT-managed Haldia Dock Complex registered a 14.53 per cent decline in cargo handling from April to August, against 3.51 per cent in all the 12 major ports of the country taken together.

Eastern region ports, including the ones in Haldia, Paradip and Visakhapatnam, have suffered more with the movement of dry bulk cargo such as coal and iron ore declining because of uncertainties in the Indian mining sector and reduced demand from China.

The falling water level of the Hooghly has worsened the situation. The depth of the crucial Jellingham river channel, near Nandigram, has reduced by 1.2m in the past five years. Every increase of depth of 0.1m allows a ship to carry 500 tonnes of extra cargo.

Sources said ships were using other ports, even by incurring additional costs, because of the reduced depth at Haldia, which can handle 22 million tonnes of cargo more than what it has been doing.

“We have requested everyone concerned to allow us permissive possession of 500-odd acres for three years to dump dredged material from the shipping channel. But so far, nothing has happened,” Jain said.

The sources said the stalemate at the Haldia port could be the fallout of two companies handling cargo — Ripley and ABG Shipyard, a stakeholder in HBT, but the political undertones were not hard to miss.

Trinamul, which is trying to regain its authority after its loss to the CPM in the Haldia municipal elections in June, has spied in the trouble at the port in the recent past an opportunity to project itself as a party keen to fight for the cause of the labourers.

At a meeting in front of a port gate on Friday, Trinamul MP Subhendu Adhikari had said: “When Ripley sacked some labourers (nearly a year ago), I merely requested ABG to induct them. That’s all I did. Unlike (former Haldia CPM strongman) Lakshman Seth, I didn’t force anyone to induct over 150 labourers. I don’t have any secret deal with any company.”

“Trinamul is not against private investors. But we will resist any move that affects poor labourers. The Haldia port has to emerge as an individual entity. Why does it need to be a part of CPT?” he had added.

Adhikari had played the pro-labour card before a crowd that feared the axe, an apparent effort to increase his party’s support base in the port.

The Trinamul leadership, the sources said, had found a chance to woo the port labourers, a large section of whom was thought to have voted against the party in the civic polls. The labourers were apparently unhappy with Trinamul for alleged extortion by some suspected party workers in Haldia.

A senior Trinamul leader said: “In the aftermath of alleged extortion by some workers of our party in the Haldia industrial belt, we want to project Subhendu as a leader fighting for the labourers. This makeover is necessary in the run-up to the panchayat polls.”

Trinamul insiders said the party was planning to lodge a police complaint against yesterday’s layoffs.

The Left, which has traditionally enjoyed a strong support base among the dock labourers, thanks to Seth, has tried to put up a pro-industry image by backing the mechanised operations.

“The Haldia port has to pay around Rs 121 crore on pensions annually. From ABG, it earns around Rs 100 crore because of the mechanised berths. So, it doesn’t take much to understand that if the company stays, we will benefit,” said Biman Mistry, the joint secretary of the Left-backed Calcutta Port and Shore Mazdoor Union.

The Left has the support of a section of port officials who have formed the Haldia Dock Bachao Committee. These officials said the port would gain around Rs 76 crore annually if ABG operates.

ABG is losing around Rs 12 lakh every day because of the port stalemate.