Kolkata Port Trust not to allow equipment withdrawal

Haldia Bulk Terminals (HBT), Pvt. Ltd. on Wednesday announced its decision to “walk out from the Haldia Dock Complex (HDC) with immediate effect,” saying the “ever-worsening situation at Haldia” had left it feeling betrayed.

Acting chairman of the Kolkata Port Trust (KoPT) Manish Jain, however, said HBT would not be allowed to withdraw its equipment as it did not have the right to terminate its contract. The agreement, signed in 2009 following a global tender, gave only the KoPT the right to cancel the 10-year contract, he told a press conference here.

“We will request them to continue work at the two berths [2 and 8] and also seek the [Calcutta] High Court direction. If they refuse to comply, then we will go for termination of the contract and claim damages for financial loss for the remaining seven years.”

HBT and KoPT have filed writ petitions and applications in the High Court. This will be followed by a process of re-tendering. HBT presently has equipment worth over Rs.140 crore at the two berths.

It said the safety and security of its employees was of paramount importance. “We cannot work in an environment where the authorities responsible for ensuring law and order and the success of the project have openly renounced and abandoned their responsibilities,” HBT chief executive officer Gurpreet Malhi said in a statement.

At a press conference later, he indicated that with hindsight the company regretted its decision in 2009 when it bid for a tender for handling two berths in HDC. It started work in 2010.

Industry reaction to this development, which brought back memories of relocation of the Tata’s Nano small car project following a political agitation, was, however, mixed. ASSOCHAM secretary general D.S. Rawat said the HBT decision would not have any impact on investment flow in the long-run, but added the government should not delay action against those taking the law into their own hands.

The Bengal Chamber saw it as a one-off incident and said something must have gone wrong with HBT’s business model. However, the government should intervene if there was a law and order problem.

While HBT attributed its mounting losses to a drop in cargo at HDC, its decision to lay off 275 workers in September precipitated the present crisis. It said it was unable to operate its berths as its officers and employees were facing repeated threats. A flashpoint was reached after the reported abduction of three of its managers on Saturday night.

Opposition parties have criticised the State government’s handling of the situation. They said the Trinamool regime had “declared war against industry in the State.”

“After the Trinamool came to power, it had declared a war against the media and intellectuals. Now it has extended this to industry in the State,” Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly Surya Kanta Mishra said.