FE Editorial : Bengal in the dock

There was a feeling of déjà vu when private cargo handler ABG-LDA, an Indo-French JV, announced that it was pulling out of Haldia port, citing unsafe conditions and lack of protection for workers by the Mamata Banerjee government. Four years ago, in 2008, in a similarly acrimonious situation and amid a deteriorating security environment, the Tatas too pulled out of the state (with their small car project from Singur). The Mamata Banerjee government was not in power then, but Banerjee had led the protest against the Tatas and refused to acknowledge the shattering impact on industry it would have. In 2012, with Banerjee at the helm, it hasn't been easy going for industry, to say the least. Her intransigent land policy, where the government won't help industry in getting land for big projects, must have put off many potential investors.

The government's handling of the Haldia port issue is likely to shock all investors away from the state. The law of the land hasn't been upheld, the protection that the ABG-LDA workers sought never came. Mamata Banerjee's telling statement that "nothing happened" in Haldia just pointed at the deeper political malaise that Mamata's parivartan hasn't been able to change. Haldia had enough problems of its own but the situation reached a new low, with lawlessness becoming the norm and the police brazenly looking away. Even days after the ABG-LDA staff alleged abduction of three of its workers, the state government is in denial mode and no arrests have been made. In 35 years, the Haldia Port, Kolkata Port Trust's main cargo-handling arm, has not grown, but shrunk. Built in 1977 to become one of the 12 major ports of the country, and serve the states of West Bengal, Bihar, the northeast and countries like Bhutan and Nepal, it's now headed to be a minor port where only barges will be able to call. In five years from 2007 to 2012, profits fell from R432 crore to R89 crore. Through the years, the port has been battling falling draught—which means ships not more than 50,000 dead weight tonne can call on the port—and dwindling cargo. But mostly, it has been fighting violent trade unionism and apathy of respective state governments—first the Left Front and now the Trinamool Congress. Yet, each political party holds a stake in the unions and no party is a mere onlooker in the Haldia mess. If a port, which is usually a pillar of a state's industrial dreams, is allowed to flounder and fail, the state government has a lot to answer for if big-ticket investors give Bengal a miss.

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