Kolkata ports poor financial health worries pensioners

Updated: Jan 25 2002, 05:30am hrs
The 27,000 plus pensioners of Kolkata Port Trust (KoPT) are a worried and disappointed lot. The Union shipping minister, Vedprakash P Goyal, has refused to provide any grant to the trust for pension payments which, at present, amount to around Rs 200 crore a year.

The pensioners are worried because most of them belong to the loss-making Kolkata Dock System (KDS), and many in the young Haldia Dock Complex (HDC) are questioning the rationale of providing funds from HDC coffers. Moreover, the number of pensioners and the financial burden of the 133-year-old KoPT, which manages both KDS and HDC, are going up every year. All this may make pension payment uncertain.

But a closer scrutiny of the ministers recent communication to visiting KoPT trustees may give the pensioners some hope. The burden is not on the loss-making KDS. It has to be seen as a problem of KoPT as a whole, Mr Goyal reportedly told the trustees. This means that the burden for the pension payout may have to be borne jointly by KDS and HDC, as is being done now.

The fall in traffic and, hence, growing loss at KDS is also a cause for worry for pensioners and trustees. Traffic fell sharply by 31 per cent in 2000-01 from the previous fiscals 10.31 million tonne and further by over 38 per cent during the first nine months (April-December) of the current fiscal. However, traffic at HDC grew by 10 per cent from 20.90mt to 22.80mt last fiscal and by over 10 per cent in the first nine months this fiscal. Even then, overall traffic at KoPT fell by over 3 per cent in last fiscal and over 1 per cent in the first nine months. Although HDC reported a net surplus of Rs 40.03 crore on a revenue of Rs 626.18 crore in 2000-01, it was not enough to compensate KDS net deficit of Rs 108.25 crore on a turnover of Rs 271.76 crore. Thus, KoPT reported a net deficit of Rs 68.22 crore on a total revenue of Rs 897.94 crore.

Many feel KoPT should come up with programmes to improve its financial health and seek the support of the shipping ministry. In fact, KoPT already has a few of them. For example, it has decided to lease about 150 acre of land initially and another 250 acre now under port-related use, in phases. It sent an estate management guideline to the shipping ministry on August 20 last. The shipping minister has assured that the guidelines will be cleared soon. If cleared, the guidelines would help KoPT increase its revenue and stave off the financial crunch to a certain extent, port officials believe.

At the same time, KoPT needs to rightsize its manpower, particularly at KDS, through introduction of voluntary retirement scheme (VRS). Although KDS has twice the manpower of HDC, it handles less than one-third of the traffic handled by the latter. As on March 31, 2001, KDS had a manpower of 9,579, while HDC 4,811. KoPT has been demanding for quite some time that it be provided grants from the ministry or from the National Renewal Fund for VRS.

When HDC was set up the idea was to go closer to the sea and handle bulk cargo, while concentrating on general cargo handling at KDS. Since the trend now is to ship general cargo by containers and KDS has developed a modern container terminal, it is natural that such cargo be handled by it. But, in April 2001, the Tariff Authority of Major Ports (TAMP) decided to increase port and related charges at KDS, while retaining the old charges at HDC. This resulted in a sharp fall in cargo at KDS. Most of it went to HDC. Although the charges have been revised downward, KDS is yet to get back lost tonnage.