The Telegraph, 9 June 2017, Calcutta
The movement of Nepal-bound goods from the Calcutta port has come down to a trickle following a standoff between truck owners and cargo handlers, prompting the government of the landlocked nation to seek the intervention of the local administration.
Over 550 containers heading towards India's northern neighbor are stuck at the port, threatening to taper the supply of essential commodities to Nepal.
Trouble started brewing from the beginning of this month when truck owners declined to provide enough vehicles to move the cargo. Road movement nearly stopped from June 6.
"Truck movement to our nation has been severely impacted in the last few days, causing serious trouble for our people. Nepal's importers are being subjected to unreasonable demand from a section of truck owners," Ek Narayan Aryal, the consul-general of Nepal, said this evening.
Nepal uses the Calcutta and Haldia ports to trade with other nations, following a treaty of trade and transit signed between the two countries in 1960. It moves containers through Calcutta and bulk cargo such as coal and cement via Haldia.
Bhutan also does trade through the Bengal ports. However, compared with around 6,000 containers a month for Nepal, Bhutan moves only 150 containers.
For Nepal, half of the containers are moved by road and the rest through the rail.
Truck owners said they were under pressure to overload vehicles, which not only increases the wear and tear of the truck but also puts them on the wrong side of the law. Consequently, they have decided not to overload and also move only one 20-feet container on a trailer even as it has space to put two such boxes.
The cargo handlers claimed that truck owners were overloading for all other destinations, except Nepal. "We are not asking for any special favor. But if you are doing it for Odisha, Bihar or Assam, why not us?" they said.
If the trouble continues, the cargo could move to Visakhapatnam, which can also move Nepal cargo under the treaty. Even as Nepal prefers the Bengal ports for geographical proximity, rake movement from the southern port has recently started.
"While we are trying to keep the business in Calcutta, some people are trying to derail," a city-based Nepal cargo handler said.
Calcutta Port Trust officials said they were aware of the stiff and trying to resolve it. "A meeting may take place at the office of the deputy commissioner (port) of Calcutta Police on Saturday," the official said.
The rate for Nepal-bound cargo ranges between Rs 2,500 and Rs 3,200 a ton, depending on the seasonality. Moreover, owners charge Rs 10,000 per trip for return. Put together, the 800-kilometre journey between Calcutta and Raxaul on the Nepal-India border in northern Bihar costs Rs 76,000. A trip from Calcutta to Delhi, nearly double the distance, costs almost the same. If less cargo is loaded, the cost of movement will go up.
In the past, attempts by Nepal traders to shift to the railways from the road were blocked, prompting one company to move Calcutta High Court. The company was trying to use the rail network instead of tankers to carry edible oil. The court had then observed how the menace of the syndicate was spreading its tentacles to every sphere of business in Bengal.