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Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Protests force Petrapole, India’s biggest land port, to close again

Though only two trucks were unloaded that day, 18 more could offload their cargo before the movement of goods trucks from the Indian side was again halted on Monday.

Written by Ravik Bhattacharya | Kolkata | Published: May 5, 2020 10:52:15 am
covid 19 india, India-Bangladesh Petrapole border, Petrapole border coronavirus lockdown, covid 19 Petrapole truck drivers, india lockdown, coronavirus, west bengal news, indian express news Indo- Bangladesh Petrapole border at North 24 Parganas. Express photo by Partha Paul

Four days after resuming operations, India’s biggest land port shut down on Monday following protests by Trinamool Congress-backed labour unions and villagers afraid of the novel coronavirus disease spreading from Bangladeshi labourers to Indian drivers and helpers.

The Petrapole checkpost in the Bongaon area of North 24 Parganas district, 83 km from here, had reopened on April 30, over a month after being closed due to the nationwide lockdown imposed by the Centre to contain the pandemic. Though only two trucks were unloaded that day, 18 more could offload their cargo before the movement of goods trucks from the Indian side was again halted on Monday.

“No work could be done and there was no movement of trucks today. Since Thursday, when it was reopened, only trucks carrying export materials went to zero point and were unloaded by labourers from Bangladesh, who then carried it away in their trucks,” said Kartik Chakraborty, the secretary of the Petrapole Clearing Agents Staffs’ Welfare Association.

Chakraborty said work had to be stopped because of the tense situation in the area. “Workers’ unions have been protesting and some villagers too joined them. They said there was a chance of COVID-19 infection spreading from Bangladeshi workers to Indian drivers,” he added.

Chakraborty said work had been stopped in March after the lockdown started. Following the Centre’s approval, which came after repeated requests from exporters, the District Magistrate instructed the port authority on April 29 to resume trade, and ensure maximum social distancing.

“The district administration and the police told us to resume work by following all safety protocols, including social distancing. So we started work on Thursday. We were able to clear 20 trucks in these days, including consignments of jute and maize seeds critical for Bangladesh. However, unions and locals agitated despite the fact that we took all precautions. Drivers and helpers get down of the trucks long before workers from Bangladesh start unloading. Masks and sanitisers were given to all drivers and helpers. I do not know what will happen next. More Indian workers are involved since only export is taking place,” added the port official.

On Friday, labour unions affiliated to the Indian National Trinamool Trade Union Congress had protested near the land port. The following day, a group of villagers surrounded port officials’ vehicles at Jayantipur market area while they were on their way to join duty. The gherao was lifted after an hour due to police intervention.

TMC leader and North 24 parganas Zilla Parishad mentor Gopal Seth claimed there had been a number of positive cases and deaths in Benapole and Jessore on the Bangladeshi side.

“So far, Bongaon is safe from infection. People of Bongaon are in fear that if trucks go at zero point and drivers and helpers are in close proximity with the labourers, infection will spread. So, we will not allow any such misadventure. Only after the end of lockdown Petrapole can be opened. People will resist if there is any attempt of reopening,” said Seth.

Bongaon Truck Loading and Unloading Sramik Union’s Working President Amit Bose criticised the Centre for taking unilateral decisions.

“Our workers have been sitting idle since March 22. The Centre never asked whether they have food at home. Now, suddenly they forced Petrapole to open. They did not even hold talks with the stakeholders at the grassroots level, including workers. Only a handful of trucks are being cleared, while 2,000 are waiting. There is some conspiracy,” he said.

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