Calcutta, Oct. 29: The Haldia mess has dredged up an arbitrary process by which persons indirectly associated with dock operators are made members of apex decision-making bodies of ports.
Several trustees of Calcutta Port Trust (CPT), which runs the Haldia port where a Trinamul-backed union is accused of using strong-arm tactics, have ties with a manual cargo handler, Ripley & Co.
Ripley had competed in auctions for port operations but Haldia Bulk Terminals (HBT), the mechanised operator whose officials were allegedly abducted at gunpoint and hounded out of Haldia on Saturday night, had won the bid.
A port official referred to the presence of at least three members on the 21-member board of trustees of the CPT — Dipyendu Biswas, Sambu Nath Dutta and Bhaskar Basu.
Bhaskar Basu represents Pratidin Prakashani Ltd, a company from the same stable as Ripley. Legal circles said Biswas, a lawyer at Alipore Court, and Sambu Nath Dutta, a Calcutta High Court lawyer, have informally advised various group firms of Ripley over the years.
Asked by The Telegraph, both Sambu Nath Dutta and Dipyendu Biswas denied having any association with Ripley. They claimed to have had close ties with a former Congress cabinet minister from Bengal.
“We work for the best interests of the port. We don’t look after any one’s interest,” Sambu Nath Dutta said.
“We generally go with the majority,” Biswas said.
Three other CPT trustees are said to have ties with the firm: Ragam Kishore, CEO of Vizag Seaport Pvt Ltd, Debasis Dutta, representing the Bengal National Chamber of Commerce & Industry, and Sachikumar Kole, president of the Calcutta Customs House Agents Association.
Ripley is one of the three promoters of Vizag Seaport through a special purpose vehicle called Lastin Holdings.
Debasis Dutta is the treasurer of Mohun Bagan Club, whose president Swapan Sadhan Bose (Tutu Bose) and his family members own Ripley. Swapan Sadhan Bose used to be a Rajya Sabha MP on a Trinamul ticket while his son is a serving MP, backed by the same party, in the Upper House.
A Ripley director, Shoumik Bose, texted this reporter in response to a question that he would call back but had not done so till midnight.
Shipping industry veterans said it was unusual for the CPT to have so many trustees who have had some sort of association with one operator that is competing for business from another.
HBT had alleged that the CPT management was not allocating enough cargo to the two berths the company operated but was diverting them to those managed by Ripley and other organisations. HBT, which laid off 275 workers citing paucity of work, has suspended operations in the two berths because of the unrest that followed the retrenchment.
According to a former chairman of the CPT, the process by which “other interest” trustees are selected is “completely arbitrary”.
“No application is sought for the posts of ‘other interests’. Their selection can be said to be completely arbitrary. I never questioned them, knowing they were the (Union shipping) minister’s quota, political appointees,” the former chairman said.
If a player needs to place loyalists on the board, they can use a category called “other interests” — a provision put in place through the Major Port Trust (MPT) Act of 1963.
The “other interests” trustees can be compared with “independent directors” on the board of a company.
Sometimes, representatives of private operators are also nominated. But the chairman can ask such members to leave a meeting if the agenda has an item with a conflict of interest. But a former CPT chairman said that over the years, some “other interest” trustees had become vocal to protect the interests of their backers.
The boards of trustees of the CPT as well as the other 11 big ports in the country are governed by the 1963 act. The trustees are chosen from representatives of the respective port, government organisations (like the mercantile marine department and the coast guard), the railways, which have a direct link to port operations, and labour unions.
The chairman of the port generally has a role — but not the final say — in shortlisting the regular nominees. He sends a panel of names to the shipping ministry.
However, the chairman does not make any recommendation for selecting the “other interests” or independent members. The Union shipping ministry — or specifically the minister — takes the decision.
Trinamul had held the junior berth for shipping but that does not mean the party had to intervene to get any “other interest” trustees approved.
Veterans said the arbitrary selection process had been so well entrenched that established players had been having their way long before Trinamul stepped into the ministry.