A five-day stand-off between port officials and the 200-strong dock workforce has affected the functioning of Beypore Port with its major source of coastal traffic to Lakshadweep islands in a state of standstill.
The only visible movement on Tuesday came from a handful of curious tourists who came to gaze at the rows of dhows anchored at the wharf.
Port officials said the ‘lightning strike’ by the port’s loading and unloading workers on Friday has served a crippling blow to the port’s efforts to build up a profile as a trade-friendly centre in Malabar fit for international maritime business and industry.
Tension between the port officials and the 200-strong workforce has been a constant theme at the port, but this time it has re-surfaced even to affect the supply of essential commodities and fuel to Lakshadweep.
Beypore handles over 90 per cent of the cargo among minor ports in the State. Official records show that revenue raised by the port in 2011-2012 was Rs.20.8 crore, with major coastal traffic from Lakshadweep.
The port was host to a total 524 vessels - 400 sailing vessels, 61 passenger ships and 63 cargo ships - and 13,734 passengers in 2011-2012. Projected traffic in 2024 is 2 million tonnes.
According to the workers, the trigger for the strike is a Coast Guard craft C-144 docked at the wharf besides the dhows to Lakshadweep.
“The poor crew members of the dhows were threatened of severe action if they so much as touched the Coast Guard vessel. In the first place, why give space for the Coast Guard vessel to dock so close to the dhows. …” Nadeer N., a dock worker, said.
Countering this allegation, the public relations office of the Coast Guard said their vessel had every right to be berthed at the spot.
“Like other vessels, we are also paying a fee for berthing it at the port. There was some damage caused by one of the dhows docked near our vessel. We amicably settled with the dhow’s captain to repair the damage. This was done promptly and everything is resolved. Workers have some misunderstanding with the port officials,” he said
Workers had also objected to the port officials’ decision to divert one of eight cranes available at the port for other work for two days early this month.
“We work in eight shifts of two persons each. The loss of one crane reduces work for us. Such restrictions on our movement and work will result in a drop in our earnings,” C. Nawaz, a worker, complained.
Workers claim that they were met with a hostile response from the Senior Port Conservator’s office on Friday, leading to the strike.
“For five days, no work has happened at the port. But so far no official has come forward to hear the workers,” U. Pocker, a workers’ union leader, said. But port officials call the strike unjustified.
“No prior notice was served on us. This strike serves a big blow to our efforts to give the Beypore port a facelift. We are trying hard to cajole entrepreneurs to invest in the port. Till now, they have raised no demands,” an official at the Senior Port Conservator’s office said.
Meanwhile, a meeting has been called tomorrow by the Port Officer in a bid to settle the issue. But dhow workers like Kazhinjanam Raja, who is from Kavratti Island, are stuck at the port unable to load up and head back home.
“Expenses are mounting. Food supplies are running short. Any further delay will only increase our losses,” he said.