Kolkata: Clearing agents and shipping lines have decided to divert from early next week all ships headed for Kolkata to the Haldia port, 125km away, in the wake of unprecedented congestion.
The move will seriously inconvenience importers and exporters—they are bracing for cost escalation, logistical challenges and even disruption in delivery commitments—but clearing agents in Kolkata say there is no alternative.
Because of restrictions imposed last month by the local police on goods vehicles movement, the Kolkata port is overflowing with piled up containers. The only way to clear the congestion is by suspending vessel arrivals, said Sujit Chakraborty, president of Calcutta Customs House Agents’ Association, a lobby group.
The port authority—the Kolkata Port Trust (KoPT)—however, denied the allegation. After the Kolkata Police eased the restrictions on goods vehicles movement, things have improved, said a spokesperson for KoPT, adding the port authority hadn’t received any intimation from clearing agents about their decision to divert ships to Haldia. Five ships are currently at the port, and at least two more are waiting to drop anchor, he added.
It is “shameful” KoPT is denying the situation, said Chakraborty. At least 9,816 containers are stuck at the port, and cargo movement has ground to a halt, he added. Warehouses have raised rentals and delivery schedules are going haywire. There is no alternative to diverting ships to Haldia, he said. At least 16 ships are scheduled to arrive in Kolkata by 23 October, according to Chakraborty.
But being a riverine port, Haldia, too, has limitations, said a Haldia Dock Complex official, asking not to be named. Ships can enter and leave the Haldia port only during high tides, which means it can receive and despatch only around six ships a day, according to this person. “Ramping up cargo-handling infrastructure for quicker turnaround wouldn’t help because you can’t beat the tides when its comes to movement of ships,” this person said.
Haldia mostly receives so-called bulk cargo—commodities such as iron ore, thermal coal and metallurgical coal. If container ships are given priority at Haldia port in the wake of the situation at the Kolkata port, bulk cargo arrivals could be disrupted and this would have a cascading effect on a number of industries such steel and power, the HDC official said.
Asked about the limitations of the Haldia port, Chakraborty said, “A balance has to be struck between container and bulk cargo… My fear is ships will get diverted to other ports such as Dhamra and Vizag unless things improve immediately.”
That for KoPT, too, is a major concern, said a key official, who, too, asked not to be identified. “Turning ships away can have serious long term implications,” this person added.
Apart of cost escalation, exporters see logistics of transporting goods to Haldia as a major challenge, which could disrupt delivery schedules. “We have never exported goods through the Haldia port,” said Irfan Ahmed, a leading exporter of leather goods from Kolkata.
It is impossible for exporters with no experience of despatching goods through Haldia to deal with the logistical challenge in such short notice, he added. But thankfully, for Kolkata’s leather goods exporters such as Ahmed, the bulk of the Christmas shipments to Europe and the US have already been despatched.