Calcutta, March 22: A Calcutta High Court judge today dismissed a Calcutta Port Trust plea and permitted mechanised cargo-handler Haldia Bulk Terminals to remove its equipment from the Haldia dock complex.
HBT, which used to provide mechanised handling of bulk cargo at two berths in Haldia port, pulled out last October 31 alleging “ever worsening” law and order and apathy of the state administration and port authorities.
The port trust had opposed the removal of the equipment, saying it would otherwise be difficult to recover compensation from the company since it had no other tangible assets at the port.
Today, a single-judge bench appointed three special officers to supervise the removal of the company’s equipment and asked the East Midnapore district administration to provide “all assistance to the company” if it sought help.
The bench said in its order that it was “unfair of the Port to foist the blame on the contractor (HBT)”.
Justice Sanjib Banerjee also slapped costs of Rs 4 lakh on the Calcutta Port Trust. “CPT will have to give Rs 2 lakh to HBT and the rest to the state legal aid service from the cost amount,” he ruled.
Gurpreet Malhi, CEO of the company, expressed satisfaction at the verdict. “HBT is pleased that Calcutta High Court has upheld HBT’s stance that CPT has no rights over HBT’s equipment and machinery, now lying at the Haldia dock complex, and that HBT has unfettered rights over them,” Malhi said.
A company statement said: “Hereafter, we hope the removal of the equipment will be uneventful. The whole episode represents a lost opportunity to create value for several stakeholders of the shipping industry in Bengal.”
A CPT spokesperson said the port had sought a certified copy of the order and would decide its future action after studying the order.
The port trust is seeking compensation from HBT for terminating its 10-year contract with eight years remaining on it, while the private operator is seeking compensation from the port for losses in operation. The matter will be decided in arbitration.
The legal tussle began last September when the port trust moved the high court seeking an order to HBT to continue operating berths 2 and 8. The company had threatened to stop operations unless the port allocated more cargo to it.
Soon, HBT faced a labour movement, apparently backed by Trinamul, over the retrenchment of 275 employees.
On October 28, the company alleged that three of its senior managers had been abducted and forced out of Haldia with a warning never to set foot in the port town again.
On October 31, HBT informed the high court of its decision to terminate its contract with the port trust. The company had invested Rs 160 crore in installing six mechanised cranes and earth-moving equipment at the Haldia dock complex.
The CPT declined to accept the termination of the contract and asked the company to report for work. Port chairman Manish Jain blamed the company for the trouble in Haldia and threatened to slap a penalty for loss of business.
The company than tried to remove its six mobile harbour cranes, 50 dampers, 26 loaders and five weighing machines from the dock complex. But the port trust said the equipment must stay till the company paid compensation.
The company again moved the high court on December 12, and Justice Sanjib Banerjee passed an interim order allowing it to remove the equipment.
But on December 19, the port trust appealed against Justice Sanjib Banerjee’s interim order before the division bench of Justices Asim Banerjee and Shukla Kabir Sinha.
The same day, the division bench appointed three special officers — advocates Jayanta Naryan Chatterjee, Utpal Basu and Prabal Mukherjee — to take custody of the company’s assets at Haldia port till the settlement of the port’s compensation claim. The division bench then sent the case back to Justice Sanjib Banerjee for disposal.
Samaraditya Pal appeared for the private company while Jayanta Mitra represented the port trust.
WHAT THE COURT SAID
Excerpts from the high court order
On the basis of the material now available, it cannot be accepted that merely commercial reasons prompted the contractor (HBT) to abandon the agreement
While there is no evidence of the Port’s complicity with the vested interests at the Haldia Dock Complex, it is equally unfair of the Port to foist the blame on the contractor and charge it with abandoning the work, unmindful of the impediments in the way of the contractor that the Port admitted in its letters to third parties
There can be no doubt that this contractor may not have recovered even the cost of its investment in the first three years of the 10-year contract. Its exposure to its bankers appears to be in the region of Rs 100 crore on the basis of the documents disclosed. It would defy logic then to accept the Port’s case that the contractor chose to leave Haldia; there must have been grievous reasons for a commercial organisation to incur huge expenses to set up base and abandon the work midstream. The reasons may be found in the several letters addressed by the Port to the administration that appear to have gone unheeded.