Kolkata, Nov 3 : A port equipment operator's decision to bid adieu to West Bengal has become the big talking point in the state. As politicians get busy in their bid to score brownie points, the issue has triggered a media war and divided society into those drawing comparisons with Tata Nano's exit from Singur and those dismissively calling the outbound company a contractor.
While those opposed to the Mamata Banerjee government prophesy a bleak future for drawing investment to the state, her team seems unperturbed.
The operator, Haldia Bulk Terminals Private Limited, which was engaged in operating two mechanised berths at the Haldia Dock complex of the Kolkata Port Trust, has cited "poor law and order" and safety and security of its employees, besides the KoPT's "repeated failure" to allocate more cargo to it as reasons for opting out of the state.
But the state government rubbished allegations regarding law and order and tried to wash its hands of the matter.
"We don't come into the picture. Did the company have any agreement with us? They had an agreement with the KoPT. Ask the port authorities," Industries' Minister Partha Chatterjee said.
On the law and order problems cited by the operator, Chatterjee said: "They never came to us. They went to the media. Had they come to us, we would have looked into it. If somebody goes to the media, the media cannot look into law and order issues."
HBT Chief Executive Officer Gurpreet Malhi has alleged that KoPT and some vested interests tried to force his company to leave HDC by allocating less cargo, and "when they realised that we would not quit, they resorted to the final low of beating up and abducting our officers".
The government has, however, described the abduction allegation as "cooked up".
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee claimed that operations at Haldia were normal and the allegations were "exaggerated".
The Haldia controversy has echoed in the media. A Bengali news channel which has now turned against the Banerjee regime after being staunchly pro-government in the initial months of her reign, has taken the lead in pillorying the regime on the issue.
Questions have been raised regarding the role played by a stevedoring company which handles the on-shore cargo at Haldia and is owned by the family of a Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha MP.
"The chief minister must initiate a thorough investigation into what is going in Haldia. The people must be told what deals have been made behind the curtains and why a company is being forced to quit the state," said leader of the opposition Surjya Kanta Mishra.
Union minister of state for urban development Deepa Dasmunshi went a step further to demand a Central Bureau of Investigation probe. "This (forcing HBT to leave) has been done to serve partisan interests. A CBI probe is needed," he said.
The battle for the stevedoring company, which is the target of these allegations, is being spearheaded by a channel and a newspaper owned by the MP's family.
"HBT had quoted a very low amount to get the tender for cargo handling at Haldia. Naturally, they are not making profits. So they wanted to flee Haldia. Since there was no exit clause in the contract, it has hatched a heinous plot to highlight poor law and order," said a channel official, who saw in the criticism of the rival channel an attempt to hit the main business of a competitor.
The chief minister has also lambasted a section of the media for raising a "hue and cry" over Haldia. She termed it as a conspiracy and hinted that business interests were at play behind the reports.
But as politicians and the media fight it out, business chambers are worried that the development could hit the state's business prospects.
"It is an unfortunate incident and it will surely have a negative impact on state's image. The state government now must look into roping in big ticket investment in West Bengal," said Kallol Datta, president of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
"This is worse than the Tata Motors deciding to shift their proposed Nano plant in Singur to Sanand in Gujarat. The Singur plant had not yet started operations. But Haldia is a thriving port, one of the most important in east India,' said Communist Party of India - Marxist central committee member Md Salim.
The Tatas had quit Singur in 2008 Oct following a sustained and often violent stir by a section of landowners under the leadership of then main opposition Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool.
(Sirshendu Panth can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)