Singur Redux: Co pulls out of Haldia

Abductions: HBT says conditions fraught with danger after it sacked 275 employees.

Written by Sulagna Sengupta | Haldia | Published: November 1, 2012 6:33:34 am

Singur Redux: HBT says got no help from Mamata govt; TMC-backed MP owns port’s only other cargo firm.

Citing unsafe work conditions,cargo handling company Haldia Bulk Terminals (HBT) on Wednesday announced its immediate exit from West Bengal’s Haldia port.

Problems have been brewing at the dock complex,run by the Kolkata Port Trust (KoPT),since HBT sacked 275 employees last month stating they were surplus. Operations of the firm,jointly promoted by ABG Shipyards of India and French logistics company LDA,have been hit since mid-September,with the retrenched workers,backed by the Trinamool Congress,agitating inside and outside the port along with trade union workers.

On Sunday,the firm alleged that three of its employees as well as the family members of one had been abducted by outsiders,who released them later after warning them not to return to Haldia.

The pullout came a day after West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee assured that full police protection was being provided at Haldia. She also claimed that everything was normal at the port and allegations of violence were media concoctions.

With ABG-LDA pulling out,the only other cargo handler to stay in operation is Ripley & Company Ltd,which is owned by the family of Swapan Sadhan (Tutu) Bose,a former Trinamool Congress-backed Rajya Sabha member. Bose’s son,Srinjoy,is a sitting Rajya Sabha member backed by Trinamool Congress. While HBT operated two mechanised berths,Ripley has handling rights for nine non-mechanised berths.

Announcing the pullout,HBT CEO Gurdeep Malhi said: “With a deep sense of disappointment we have to inform you that we have been left with no option but to walk out from the Haldia dock complex with immediate effect… The ever worsening situation at Haldia has left us feeling betrayed and we hope that the elements responsible for driving us out of Haldia are brought to justice… We cannot work in an environment where the authorities responsible for ensuring law and order and success of the project have openly abandoned their responsibilities… The economy of West Bengal has once again been denied growth,modernisation and development.”

Malhi added: “Indian and foreign investors will succeed in finding other locations which are investor-friendly and conducive for business. Sooner rather than later,West Bengal will have to choose to make itself attractive and viable for investors,otherwise investment and progress will continue to elude the state.”

But West Bengal commerce and industries minister Partha Chatterjee claimed that the pullout would not have any impact on the state’s industrial revival.

Meanwhile,gloom descended at the Haldia port town,about 140 km from Kolkata,as the news came in. Hundreds of workers of the company walked in groups to the berths 2 and 8 where the private cargo handling agency operated. A total of around 650 people are threatened with job loss now,including the 275-odd labourers who had been retrenched earlier following the fall in volume of cargo handled by the company.

S K Noor Alam,who has been working at ABG for two years,was shocked. “It’s because of political reasons that the company is leaving Haldia. I stay in Haldia town with my wife and two children and don’t know how I will survive now,” he said.

However,Trinamool Congress MP Suvendu Adhikari,chairman of the Haldia Development Board,dismissed fears that workers were faced with unemployment while accusing ABG of irresponsibility. All the ABG workers who had been retrenched earlier and those who were going to lose their jobs now would be re-inducted when the new cargo handling agent starts working at Haldia,he said.

HBT’s decision to pull out came four years after Tata Motors quit Singur accusing the Trinamool,then the opposition party,of creating law and order problems at the factory site. The Congress,CPM and BJP have accused the state government of inaction leading to the exit of the operator.

ABG Shipyards had signed a contract in 2009 with the KoPT for handling cargo at berths no 2 and 8 of the Haldia port for 10 years. The company commenced its operations in September 2010 and had modernised cargo handling. In August this year,ABG wrote to the KoPT accusing it of failing to keep its promises,resulting in losses for the company. It had added that it would be forced to suspend work if this continued.

HBT also had disputes with the KoPT authority,state government and district administration over allocation of cargo,apart from the deteriorating law and order situation.

A few days back,KoPT had moved the Calcutta High Court seeking a direction to HBT to resume work stating that an agreement for a resolution to the impasse had been signed,but the firm had not resumed work. On Wednesday,the HBT counsel told the high court vacation bench of Justice Sambuddha Chakraborty that a letter had been faxed to the port authority informing it of the decision to pull out.

In the letter to the KoPT,the ABG group accused the port authority of never intending to carry out its obligations under the agreed terms and conditions. It also accused the port authority of not coming forward to give security to the company,and the police administration of ignoring their FIRs.

Dismissing the allegations as baseless,KoPT chairman Manish Jain said ABG had caused loss of business. He claimed that the company had suppressed facts like non-payment of provident fund to the workers.

Reacting to the development,Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the state government had to focus on attracting big-ticket investments.

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