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CPT ‘share-recession’ logic boomerangs

A ship docked at Haldia port last week

Calcutta, Sept. 30: Calcutta Port Trust (CPT) today sought to turn the tables on the private port operator caught in a cargo-handling row but the company cited the same logic to justify the retrenchment of surplus workers.

CPT asked Haldia Bulk Terminal (HBT), the private operator, to “share the recession” in the face of falling cargo-handling operations as India’s economy grew the slowest in a decade in the first quarter of this financial year.

HBT chief executive officer Gurpreet Malhi later said he agreed with the chairman’s suggestion to “share the recession”.

“This is exactly what we have done. If there is recession, some people will lose jobs. It is sad but nothing can be done,” Malhi said, adding that HBT had “hundreds” of meetings over the last two years with the port trust.

Port Trust chairman Manish Jain has called a meeting of all shareholders, including HBT, at Haldia on October 3 to work out a plan to resolve the impasse that has crippled Bengal’s only port for over a month.

On Wednesday’s meeting, HBT chief executive Malhi said: “We will take a call on participating after getting the letter from the port.”

At a presentation today, the CPT chairman sought to suggest that HBT and stevedores like Ripley must orient itself to the new reality. “Stakeholders had benefited with us in the good times. Today, they should also share the recession,” Jain said.

HBT, which has never had a smooth run at Haldia because it was forced to hire more workers than it required under local pressure, had earlier this month cited losses and threatened to close down operations unless the port diverted more ships to its berths.

The company, which runs two mechanised berths at Haldia port, felt that ships were being sent to other berths with manual operations.

The port trust and HBT then reached a middle ground under the supervision of Calcutta High Court.

Last week the private operator sacked 275 workers. Days later, it stopped operations in the berths its manages after some of the workers assaulted those unloading a ship.

The private operator has also terminated a contract with a service provider, which had employed 400 people, to cut losses.

HBT claims it has been losing Rs 2 crore a month. But Jain suggested the company could be making losses because of internal inefficiency. “They don’t come for meeting. So we don’t really know.”

HBT had stayed away from the last meeting of all stakeholders on September 27, saying it felt threatened to be at Haldia.

Jain, however, claimed the law and order situation in Haldia was “normal” except for a few “stray incidents”.

The port earns around Rs 150 a tonne from HBT berths, compared with the Rs 45 it earns from berths operated by stevedores like Ripley.