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Vigilance questions cosy port system

Calcutta, Dec. 7: An arm of the Central Vigilance Commission has questioned the profitability and operational benefits of the model followed at a Haldia berth where the Calcutta Port Trust (CPT) leaves a big slice for entrenched players.

The skewed policy was at the root of the mess that eventually led to the exit of Haldia Bulk Terminals (HBT).

The deputy chief vigilance officer of the CPT raised the questions in a letter dated November 26, three days before the board of trustees, the apex decision-making body of the port, was to award the contract to a private player.

Following the query, the CPT trustee board decided to defer the award of the contract meant to mechanise cargo-handling operations at Berth 4B in Haldia. The berth follows a model different from the more remunerative one the port had opted for while engaging HBT three years ago.

The CPT deputy chief vigilance officer, who asked the questions, is under the administrative control of the respective ministry. But the officer is appointed with the concurrence of the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), to which such officers report functionally, too.

At Berth 4B, the port was planning to leave out a substantial chunk of money for the existing system of operations controlled by manual operators like Ripley that do not share revenue with the CPT.

At Berths 2 and 8, HBT used to manage the full range of cargo-handling, from ship to shore and then to the stacking slot and the wagons. As a result, the port used to earn Rs 226 per tonne from HBT.

In the arrangement proposed at 4B, the port could have at most hoped to earn Rs 121 — at least Rs 105 less than from the other two berths — as the shore operation would have remained under the control of companies like Ripley.

So far, the port management has not stated any cogent reason for deciding to choose a business model that yields less revenue than the alternative one. Sources said the vigilance officer has questioned whether the model proposed by the CPT at 4B would be beneficial to the port financially and operationally.

On November 29, The Telegraph had asked the CPT about the vigilance communication, only to be told by a senior official that he was not aware of any such development.

HBT had pulled out of the Haldia cargo-handling operations alleging law and order problems. Relations had started to deteriorate when HBT’s volume of cargo shrank.

The downturn was partly to blame but suspicions were aired that the CPT was diverting more cargo to the established players with ties to the Trinamul Congress.

The Haldia mess has coincided with financial challenges for the CPT. The CPT is projected to make a net surplus of Rs 9 crore in this financial year, sharply down from Rs 138 crore last year. The projection for the next financial year is far more alarming: a net deficit of Rs 38 crore.

CPT officials blamed falling cargo and the exit of HBT for the reversal of fortune. The port used to make a net surplus of Rs 80 crore from the operations of HBT alone at Haldia.

All the ports which handle bulk cargo like coal and iron ore are facing a dip in volumes but it was more pronounced at Haldia because of the shallower river draft that stands in the way of big ships.

Following the HBT controversy, some players are believed to be diverting part of the cargo meant for Haldia to ports in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.

Revenues are falling at a time the CPT needs money to dredge the river channel to facilitate ship movement. The port also has to pay salaries totalling Rs 350 crore and pension of Rs 250 crore every year.

At the November 29 meeting of the board of trustees, a resolution was taken to transfer a suspended official out of Bengal. An internal note said the presence of Ramakant Burman, a junior assistant manager (administration) of Haldia Dock Complex, was not conducive to normal functioning of the port.

Burman, the convener of the Haldia Dock Bachao Samity, has been consistently accusing the CPT brass and Trinamul MP Subhendu Adhikary of forcing HBT to exit Haldia.

The officer has also been accused of leaking confidential information to media and fanning political tension in Haldia.


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