The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Unions battle it out for turf
- Mechanisation vs manpower spells violence

In 2001, workers in Baranagar had burnt to death an industry manager. Recently, in a grim reminder of the chilling incident, dock workers threatened Central Inland Waterways Transport Corporation (CIWTC) chairman-cum-managing director Praful Tayal, that he would face similar consequences if he did not concede their demand for holding sway over the area.

The city’s docks, always a crime hotbed, are now witnessing a violent upheaval, thanks to a changeover to mechanisation from the dependence on manpower over the past 100 years. This has resulted in more violent conflicts, as competing unions, mainly Citu and Intuc, fight it out to get their men into the available slots.

“It is a battle for a shrinking support-base, for which the firms and the workers are now having to pay a heavy price,” a shipping official said. Consequently, the unions stop work every now and then and resort to strong-arm tactics.

The easiest way, involving the lowest risk factor, is “mastaan salami” that the unions demand — and get — to allow normalcy to prevail. From the richest of private firms to the all-powerful public-sector units (PSU), every operator at the docks has to pay this mastaan salami to the unions, irrespective of whether it uses the services of their members or not.

On February 20, one of the richest firms working from the port learnt this the hard way. The Citu members suddenly stopped work while unloading a large consignment of pulses in support of their demand for money. With costly manhours being wasted, the firm finally acceded to the union’s demands. And it has gone on meeting the demands ever since.

Several such instances of industry bowing to Citu’s strong-arm tactics occurred this year:

6On July 16, a PSU complained to police that hoodlums had stopped unloading a Nepal-bound consignment. Nothing happened and the PSU finally bought peace

6On April 11, CIWTC general manager G.V. Aiyer was abused and heckled by Citu-affiliated workers. He was let off, but that was enough for another senior CIWTC official to adopt some “precautions”. This officer started visiting his own dockyard at “irregular” hours and took “less-frequented” routes to ward off the threat-makers.

6On February 18, a firm was prevented from bringing down containers to the ground at Netaji Subhas Dock. Work started after the goons, again backed by Citu, were paid off.

Besides the extortion, and the corresponding damage to the city’s reputation, this is a threat to modernisation. The CIWTC, for example, spends Rs 120 for every tonne of consignment that it handles, with the help of labourers employed by contractors. A mechanised system, involving conveyor belts and cranes, will cut costs by half.

The PSU has tried to do this at its TT shed dock at Kidderpore, resulting in a fall in labourers’ — and consequently, unions’ — income. This has led to the bitter fight between unions controlled by Citu and Intuc, labour arms of the CPM and the Congress, respectively, with a union backed by the Samata Party also entering the fray.

On Wednesday, the CIWTC showed signs of limping back to normal, after officials said on Tuesday that it would stop loading and unloading operations for a few days. The Calcutta Port Trust clarified that the port was not shut and only the CIWTC’s area of operations was affected.

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