Thursday, 22 November 2012

The Haldia-HBT controversy: Singur redux?

The violence and lawlessness that has led to ABG’s pullout from Haldia port will only reinforce West Bengal’s reputation as being business unfriendly, observers say, pointing out that the situation has similarities with the Singur mess that resulted in the Tata’s exit from the State. To add to the confusion, the Kolkata Port Trust told the High Court on Nov 5 that it wanted to recall a plea made earlier to withdraw a petition last month- that asked ABG Haldia Bulk Terminals (HBT) to continue operations at the port.

HBT is a joint venture between Mumbai-based ABG and French company LDA. After weeks of rising lawlessness at the port, and after police protection was provided to the company at high cost, it finally decided to pull out of Haldia when three of its top officials- and a wife and child- were abducted at gunpoint by fifty or so workers belonging to the ruling Trinamul Congress. They were later released. In response to the outcry, the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said these reports were “a mere exaggeration of the actual fact,” and were “created by the media”.

HBT announced a few days ago that it was retrenching all is 348 employees and winding up operations at Haldia, and that it was, in the present lawless climate, no longer bound to honour its 2010 contract to operate the terminal for ten years. After port authorities threatened to retain HBT’s equipment, HBT CEO Gurpreet Malhi responded, “These assets are owned by the company. Any attempt to prevent us from moving them will be illegal and tantamount to theft." HBT has invested about Rs 150 crore at Haldia, and says it increased productivity threefold, even as it has accumulated losses to the tune of 60 crore rupees.

Even earlier, on October 19, the Calcutta High Court had ordered the WB government to provide HBT a safe environment to operate at the Haldia Dock Complex. HBT paid around Rs.17.5 lakhs towards the deployment of police personnel for this privilege.
Trade union leaders in West Bengal- backed by workers of the ruling Trinamul Congress- say that tensions were raised following the retrenchment of 275 staff at the port in the middle of September. Malhi had said earlier that vested interests were behind the violence, and had threatened to pull out of Haldia even before its personnel were abducted.

Pointing to the abduction of its officials and a family, Malhi said, "We cannot work in an environment where the authorities responsible for law and order and success of the project have openly renounced and abandoned their responsibilities."

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