KOCHI: Willingdon Island is a gold mine for Cochin Port, which owns 385.82 hectares of land there. With the port dredging out a large number of financial issues, the authorities are finally zeroing in on the Island to monetise the land holding.
According to the Draft Master Plan, of the 385.82 hectares of land with Cochin Port Trust on Willingdon Island, 147.37 hectares is still lying unused. At present, 150 companies are operating in the Island, employing around 12,000 people. The infrastructure facilities set up by the companies alone is worth Rs 230 crore.
Things were going smooth till 2012. Since then, the lease rates were increased by 275 per cent. The rates were revised from Rs 3,27,504 to Rs 9 lakh per year and for warehouses, it is Rs 7.2 lakh. The business community is of the view that even though the ministry had suggested Rs 9 lakh as the peak rate, it was a business-unfriendly move that, instead of fixing a competitive rate, Cochin Port went in for the ceiling rate straight away. The sudden spurt in lease rates has forced companies to flee, as the exorbitant rates make no business sense at all. There were earlier over 200 companies operating in Willingdon Island. In 2012, the lease period of 112 companies expired, of which 86 were active then. But now, around 30 have left the area.
“It should be noted that the buildings on the land leased in the port area are used by companies for facilitating the import/export movement of cargo. The recent hikes in the lease rent and other port charges have taken a toll on the export trade. Cargo is moving away from Kochi to neighbouring ports like Tuticorin and Mangalore, which have more favourable conditions,” said C S Kartha, president, Cochin Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
“There are vast areas of land and buildings at the Island which could be leased to prospective port users if they approach the Port Trust, instead of evicting the existing leaseholders from the land allotted to them. If the port evicts the expired leases, then more than 150 companies with approximately 12,000 employees will be dislocated, which is bound to have an adverse effect on the local economy,’’ he said.
‘’The air of uncertainty that prevails at Willingdon Island now is seriously undermining the business confidence here and hampering the business plans of our members. In a recent incident, eviction notices were served on 20 companies to vacate seven acres of land to give the area to Malabar Cements for a proposed terminal. Out of these 20 firms, eight have already left, while 12 moved legally against Cochin Port, but failed,’’ said Kartha.
“The land is being leased to companies subject to certain conditions. If the land is required by the port for shipping-related activities, we have all the right to evacuate the land. The port is paying compensation and providing alternative land to evictees. We have gone in for the ceiling rate in order to increase our revenue,” said P M Mohammed Haneef, Trustee, Cochin Port Trust. He added that even at this rate, the land is still cheaper compared to any other area in the city.