When ABG Shipyard recently said that it was exiting the Haldia docks of the Kolkata Port Trust, it blamed "vested interests" for causing a great loss to the national exchequer. Haldia Bulk Terminals, a joint venture between homegrown ABG Infralogistics and French company Louis Dreyfus Armateurs, had been contracted to operate two mechanised berths, but, it alleged, cargo was diverted to the expensive manual berths. While Haldia Bulk Terminals charged the Kolkata Port Trust Rs 75 per tonne of cargo, the manual berths charged Rs 150 and above. That was the loss to the exchequer the company was referring to; what about the vested interests?
The vested interests the company was alluding to is Ripley & Co promoted by Swapan Sadhan Bose, aka Tutu Bose or Tutuda, a familiar face in Kolkata's business circuit, but little known about. In a press release issued on September 28, Haldia Bulk Terminals accused Ripley of fomenting trouble at the docks. Ripley, incorporated in 1946, operates seven manual berths at Haldia, which together handle almost 50 per cent of the non-mechanised cargo at Haldia.
In 2010, when Haldia Bulk Terminals signed an agreement with the Kolkata Port Trust to operate two mechanized berths till 2020, it unknowingly encroached into what is Bose's territory, the Haldia Dock Complex. Friend-turned-foe and former Tamluk MP Lakshman Seth, who was also the chairman of the Haldia Development Authority, has alleged that onshore operations at Haldia are handled by Bose without any competitive bidding for several decades, flouting all rules of the Indian Port Trust Act. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the former chief minister of West Bengal, said on Sunday: "At Haldia, one cargo-handling agency was driven out to give way to a company run by a Trinamool Congress MP." The lawmaker he was referring to was unmistakably Srinjoy, Bose's son.
People connected to Haldia, even remotely, know that Bose has a virtual monopoly on its onshore operations. That's perhaps why Haldia Bulk Terminals has said that it found the going tough right from the beginning. The fight over cargo spilled into the public domain in August this year when Haldia Bulk Terminals wrote to the Kolkata Port Trust accusing it of failing to make good on its promise of cargo, resulting in the company finding it hard to keep its two berths operational. (Haldia Bulk Terminals had invested Rs 160 crore on the equipment for the two berths; its accumulated losses stood at Rs 60 crore.) The company said it would be forced to suspend operations if the cargo allocation didn't change. In fact, it stopped work soon after that. The Kolkata Port Trust, in turn, moved the Calcutta High Court seeking a direction to Haldia Port Terminal to resume work. The court agreed but asked the Kolkata Port Trust to look into Haldia Bulk Terminals' plea for more cargo. Work resumed but any attempts to divert cargo from the non-mechanised berths were resisted by workers from the manual berths. Labour, in West Bengal, has always been a highly emotive issue. A bigger stumbling block for Haldia Bulk Terminals couldn't have happened.
A month later, the company began to take names openly. The September 28 press statement from Haldia Bulk Terminals read: "After being assured by the Kolkata Port Trust that it was safe to work inside HDC (Haldia Dock Complex), Haldia Bulk Terminals made an attempt to resume operation today. Haldia Bulk Terminals’ employees and port officials were attacked by a mob of about 400 persons while working inside the port. Former Haldia Bulk Terminals employees, Cargo pool and Ripley's employees were clearly identified among the mob." A section of the Kolkata Port Trust officials had also alleged that Ripley had written a letter to its employees on September 14 that if additional cargo was allocated to Haldia Bulk Terminals, according to the Calcutta High Court order, then the company may have to go for retrenchment of workers. The sequence of events thereafter is well known.
Ripley, however, is just one of Bose's many companies; there are many outfits — from stevedoring and cargo-handling to transport — owned by Bose that rule over Haldia. According to Ripley's website, it is the flagship of a large group that has diversified businesses like cargo-handling, customs clearance, stevedoring, operation and maintenance of berth, mining, transportation, exports and news publication. Its mission, as declared on the website, is "to provide quality services to customers and grow as one of the leading logistics organisations in India. It also desires to utilise expertise for enhancing international trade." Several attempts to reach Ripley, Bose, and his son, Shoumik, who is in charge of Ripley operations, proved futile. A questionnaire sent to Bose and Ripley's official email address didn’t elicit any response; a visit to the Ripley office didn’t yield any result.
The Ripley group's turnover in 2008-09 was Rs 300 crore. It's anybody's guess how big Bose's empire is today. The family-owned E C Bose & Company has just completed 160 years in stevedoring. Bose has today expanded his port operations across Paradeep, Vishakhapatnam, Tuticorin and Chennai. While stevedoring and cargo handling is the cash cow, the business interests are diverse. A Kolkata-based industrialist says that Bose has been allotted some agricultural land in Ethiopia. In Dubai, where Bose spends more than half his time now, he runs Radio Asia Network and Dolphin Recording Studio. The radio network — Radio Asia (AM) in Malayalam, Suno 1024 (FM) in Hindi/Urdu and Super 947 (FM) in Malayalam and Tamil — reaches out to Indians in West Asia. The interest in media is not new, though. The initial diversification for Bose happened through Bengali newspaper Sangbad Pratidin in August 1992. Though not the official mouthpiece of the Trinamool Congress, it is considered to be a good cousin. In the mid-1990s, he launched the Kolkata edition of The Asian Age, which he exited towards the end of the decade by selling a 74 per cent stake to Vijay Mallya.
Much like business interests, Bose's political affiliation has also varied over the years. In the early years, Bose was known to be close to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and was said to have some business ties with late Jyoti Basu's son, Chandan Basu. It was during those times that Bose acquired a 74 per cent stake in state-owned Niramoy Polyclinic (now AMRI) along with S K Todi, also known for his Left leanings. It was given on lease to the consortium. Later, in 1996, Bose sold his stake to Emami. (This hospital was in news last December when a fire there killed 91 people; Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee retaliated by arresting six Marwari directors of the hospital.) But not just the communists, Bose maintained close ties with the Congress as well. "He always had great contacts. When I had some issues with my business, he offered help to resolve it and that was much before he joined the Trinamool Congress," an industrialist recalls.
Bose crossed over to the Trinamool Congress in early 2000. It was his political ambition that made him do so and he is Banerjee's man for all seasons. In 2005, he became a Member of Parliament, backed by the Trinamool Congress, and since then there has been no looking back. Today, Bose is pretty much considered to be the economic backbone of the party that runs a cash-strapped state. His son, Srinjoy, has taken his place in the Rajya Sabha from the Trinamool Congress.
Though Bose keeps his business interests low-key, he flaunts his affiliation with the Mohun Bagan Athletic Club. For decades he has been the president of the club. It was his initiative to bring in Mallya who now owns the club. "I used to think Tutu owns the club," an industrialist says. Though the recent fiasco has brought Bose's port operations to the fore, for all the wrong reasons, people who operate at Haldia describe him as "a smart, effective businessman who knows how to get his work done".