Chittagong seaport became fully functional again last night in the wake of an army deployment there five days into a workers strike that had kept loading and unloading stalled at 12 of the 16 general cargo berths.
The stalled general cargo berths (GCB) resumed operation around 8:00pm.
The government had to deploy the army at the country's largest seaport after negotiations among the shipping ministry, port authorities, private berth operators, and pro-ruling party dockworkers had failed in the early hours of yesterday.
Immediately after the failure of the negotiations, Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan talked to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina about what to do. The premier gave him the decision to call in the army to restore normalcy at the port, officials at the Prime Ministers' Office (PMO) said.
"The government had no alternative since the situation had become very complicated," a PMO official told The Daily Star.
Announcing that the government was not ready to compromise with the striking workers, the shipping minister at noon disclosed the decision to deploy the army. Around 3:00pm the army was deployed.
Meanwhile, Chittagong Metropolitan Police (CMP) banned all kinds of gathering including protest marches, meetings, sit-ins, and carrying of arms and sticks at the port and adjoining areas from 4.00pm yesterday to ensure law and order there.
At least 10 people including police personnel were injured when a section of workers under the banner of Dock Bandar Sramik Karmachari Shamonnoy Parishad brought out a march from the customs intersection defying the ban on gatherings, and got locked into a clash with police around 4.30pm.
Later at a media briefing at the Port Rest House, the shipping minister said, "We had no alternative to deploying the army and imposing a ban on demonstrations at the port for maintaining discipline, smooth operation of the port, and law and order, and to keep the port free of conspiracy by some people."
The efficiency of the country's premier seaport started increasing after the last caretaker government also deployed the army there immediately after assuming office in January 2007.
The shipping minister yesterday said a section of people there were conspiring to create a deadlock even after the CPA had assured the striking workers that their demands would be fulfilled.
On Friday, some dockworkers under the banner of the Dock Bandar Sramik Karmachari Federation resisted scheduled start of container handling at the general cargo berths operated by newly appointed private operators.
On the CPA's assurance of meeting their demands, the federation leaders announced on Monday evening that the workers' agitation would stop. But the striking workers stopped activities at 12 GCB jetties the same night labelling their leaders as betrayers.
As the berth operators tried to resume work at 6:00pm the next day following a meeting, they were apparently chased away by the striking workers who also assaulted two of the federation leaders.
The strikers also did not pay any heed to the shipping minister's repeated calls for negotiation meetings Tuesday night.
Meanwhile, Chittagong port users welcomed the government move to deploy the army at the port that handles nearly 90 percent of the country's external trade worth nearly $40 billion a year.
Welcoming the army deployment, Bangladesh Garment Manufactures and Exporters Association (BGMEA) demanded the the government keeps the army deployed there, so that the port does not remain closed even for a single hour. In a news release, the association termed the government's decision "time worthy" and "a good sign".
"The port became freed from those who had kept it hostage, and control over the workers was re-established," the BGMEA release said.
"We thank the government for the decision. We hope the turnover [loading and unloading] time will now come down to previous level of maximum three days instead of the present eight to ten days," said Abdus Salam Murshedy, president of BGMEA.
He urged the government to keep the troops at the port till the situation improves significantly.
Selim Osman, president of the knitwear exporters' association, also hailed the government, and termed the army deployment a timely one.
"Now we will be saved from the extra cost incurred due the impasse at the port," Osman said.
The demands of the striking workers included immediate reinstatement of their colleagues who were fired by the last caretaker government. Earlier the Chittagong Port Authority (CPA) and workers' representatives had signed an agreement to that effect. Other demands included issuance of identity cards to the workers, and payment of festival bonus fixed by the CPA.