A file photo of traffic congestion outside the Kolkata port. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Kolkata: Time is fast running out on the Kolkata port, which has been grappling with disruptions ever since a bridge connecting the southwest of the city collapsed on 4 September. Because of restrictions imposed on movement of goods vehicles, cargo despatches have declined, and unless the police start to ease the flow of traffic, the port is staring at a container pile up, say key officials.
In the immediate aftermath of the bridge collapse, container movement from the port fell sharply to around 900 a day compared with an average of around 1,700-2,000. Restrictions were imposed and goods vehicles were allowed to ply for only seven hours a day compared with 16 before the accident took place. Also, they were initially allowed to ply only at night, between 11pm and 6am.
Restrictions have since been eased and goods vehicles are being allowed to ply for up to 10 hours at night and three hours during daytime, said a key official at the Kolkata Port Trust (KoPT), who asked not to be named. As a result, despatches are now down by only around 15%, or about 300 containers a day, but “this arrangement cannot be dragged out”, he said.
The port and other related authorities, such as customs, are not geared to work 10 hours every night, he added.
Key to solving the escalating problem is to widen the daytime window from three hours, according to this official. For the police, mobility of passenger vehicles is top priority, he admitted. But, at the same time, “the police must realise that the sentiment of the business community is at stake”, he said. The police have as an interim measure also banned multi-axle trucks with 20 or more wheels in the state.
These trucks typically transport 40-foot containers and they account for at least a fifth of the cargo received at the Kolkata port. They carry so called project cargo or heavy machinery, according to the KoPT official. “Though there is no known diversion yet of inbound cargo, restrictions need to be eased immediately to address sentiment,” he said. Some outbound cargo has already been diverted to Vizag, according to this official.
Business lost by the Kolkata port due to traffic disruptions may never come back, fear port officials. More so because even the Paradip port, which is closer than Vizag, has started to despatch containers, said another official at KoPT’s traffic department, who, too, asked not to be identified. At this time of the year, cargo movement would have normally jumped to 2,000 containers a day due to the approaching festive season in India and Nepal, he said. Christmas despatches from the port have also started.
The police gave additional time last weekend to move containers from the port, said the KoPT’s traffic department official. But they didn’t on Saturday. The port currently has around 6,500-7,000 containers in its yard, and it has capacity to hold around 1,000 more, this person said. “We can carry on for maybe a week more, but unless traffic restrictions are eased, containers will pile up and it will have long-term implications,” he said.
Meanwhile, the state government has decided to demolish the collapsed Majerhat bridge and rebuild it in a year. Alongside, the civic authorities are trying to create a new thoroughfare to ease pressure of passenger vehicles on roads connecting the port.