Calcutta, Nov. 2: The Calcutta Port Trust (CPT) today literally “jumped” in court, disowned its own lawyer’s position and sought to execute a somersault — all in the name of the Haldia mess that the state government has been calling a non-issue.
The CPT lawyer agreed in the afternoon to withdraw a petition against Haldia Bulk Terminals (HBT), the cargo handler that has sought to pull out, after a vacation bench of Calcutta High Court raised a jurisdictional question.
However, hours later, the port trust was back in the court complex with a plea to recall the afternoon order, probably because the word “withdraw” triggered telling fears of what one official described as a “perception backlash”.
What was merely a legal fine point in the afternoon was converted into a dramatic scramble in the evening when the CPT issued a statement saying “there was no instruction” to its senior counsel to withdraw a petition.
The petition was moved by the CPT on October 26, requesting the court to ask Haldia Bulk Terminals (HBT) to resume operations within a timeframe and allow the port to terminate the contract with the cargo handler if it missed the deadline.
A few days later and in the aftermath of the alleged abduction of its officials on Saturday night, HBT itself sought the court’s permission to terminate the contract and pull out of the Haldia port. The CPT had hoped the court would take up the matter today.
However, Justice Sumbuddha Chakrabarty said the vacation bench might not be the right forum to hear contractual matters and suggested moving an appropriate forum (a regular bench or an arbitration authority). The judge also noted that the application moved by the CPT had become “infructuous” (unproductive) after the HBT’s request to let it pull out.
The regular bench of the high court will reopen on November 16 after the Puja holidays. A regular bench is already looking into the original petition of HBT on law and order problems in Haldia and had ordered police protection to workers willing to handle cargo. That case will continue when the court reopens. The vacation bench had entered the picture when the CPT moved court.
Today, Justice Chakrabarty asked CPT’s senior counsel Biswarup Gupta if “you agree to withdraw the case?” Gupta replied in the affirmative and Justice Chakrabarty dismissed the petition “as not pressed”.
Around 4.30pm — three-and-a-half hours after the judge’s order — a port official went back to the court to file a petition seeking recall of the ruling.
The filing department of the high court declined to accept the petition and asked the CPT to seek the permission of the bench. The port trust is expected to do so on Monday.
CPT sources later said the management was worried the news of the “withdrawal” would send a “negative” message that the port was backing off from the confrontation with HBT, although the court had made it clear that the CPT was free to move an appropriate forum against the termination of the contract.
“We were jumping behind the counsel, trying to draw his attention. How could he do something like this? We don’t want the matter to be withdrawn. The port is not scared of fighting it out. This could give a very wrong message outside,” a senior port official said.
HBT has said that “despite cargo being available within the Haldia dock complex”, the CPT “deliberately” refused to allocate more business to the mechanised company. HBT had also alleged that the CPT had acted at the behest of “certain vested interests”.
Although HBT has not named anyone, others have said that Ripley, a manual cargo handler whose promoters are close to the Trinamul Congress, stands to gain if the mechanised handler leaves Haldia.
Against this backdrop, the panic in the CPT this afternoon assumes significance. The CPT top brass report to the Union shipping ministry but they usually belong to the state IAS cadre and the quality of their future postings depends on good relations with those in power in Bengal.
The present chief of the CPT is an officiating chairman. The Union ministry is said to have cleared the name of R.P.S. Kahlon, the environment secretary in Bengal, to head the port trust.
Until the new chairman takes charge, no official would like to take responsibility for the legal fine points in court if a perception gains ground that the CPT had budged from its position and provokes the ire of the state government.
A lawyer not connected with the case explained what could have spooked the CPT bosses. “The very word ‘withdraw’ could send a wrong message as someone can think that the CPT, by withdrawing the petition, has allowed HBT to terminate the agreement. So the port will move court again asking the judge to hear the petition and pass an order. The port will have little objection to a court order.”
The CPT sources said the port’s other senior counsel, Arunava Ghosh, would ask the court to reconsider the order. Ghosh said: “The court dismissed the case after holding it infructuous. If it is infructuous, the court has the right to dismiss it. It is not necessary for the port to withdraw the application.”