Twin concerns over draft Indian Ports Bill aimed to replace British Raj law

Twin concerns over draft Indian Ports Bill aimed to replace British Raj law

Currently, the powers to plan, develop, regulate and control minor ports vest with the state governments; the latest draft proposes to transfer many of these powers to Maritime State Development Council, which has so far been only an advisory body, it is pointed out

The Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways has released the draft Indian Ports Bill, 2022 (IP Bill 2022) to amend the Indian Ports Act, 1908. It has sought feedback and suggestions on the draft IP Bill 2022 from all stakeholders before it is tabled in Parliament.

Three earlier versions of the Bill were circulated by the ministry to various stakeholders including major ports, state governments, state maritime boards and various Central government ministries. “Draft IP Bill, 2022 has been formulated keeping in view all remarks that have been received,” the ministry said.

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However, there is concern that the new Bill, if turned into law, will take away some of the powers of the state government in the maritime sector and vest them in the Union government. A second concern is that it diminishes the role of private players in the sector, at a time when they have been increasing their role in it.

How it’s expected to help

Sarbananda Sonowal, Union Minister for Ports, Shipping and Waterways, has stated that this Bill “will help in instilling confidence among more players thereby increasing their participation and promoting healthy competition in the maritime sector”.

He said this will lead to increased economic activity, wider markets, and a significant increase in associated employment possibilities, in line with the Union government’s Atmanirbhar Bharat programme. 

“The Indian Ports Act, 1908 is more than 110 years old. It has become imperative that the Act is revamped to reflect the present-day frameworks, incorporate India’s international obligations, address emerging environmental concerns, and aid the consultative development of the ports sector in the national interest,” the ministry said.

Primary objectives  

The draft Indian Ports Bill, 2022 has been prepared to consolidate and amend the laws relating to ports, for the prevention and containment of pollution at ports, to ensure compliance with the country’s obligation under the maritime treaties and international instruments to which India is a party.

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It also looks at measures for conservation of ports; to empower and establish State Maritime Boards for effective administration, control and management of non-major ports in India; provide for adjudicatory mechanisms for redressal of port related disputes and to establish a national council for fostering structured growth and development of the port sector, and ensure optimum utilisation of the coastline of India, as may be necessary, and to provide for matters ancillary and incidental thereto, or connected therewith.

According to the ministry, the primary objectives of the proposed bill are four-fold: promote integrated planning between states inter-se and Centre-states through a purely consultative and recommendatory framework; ensure prevention of pollution measures for all ports in India while incorporating India’s obligations under international treaties; address lacunae in the dispute resolution framework required for burgeoning ports sector; usher in transparency and cooperation in development and other aspects through use of data.

The proposed Bill will homogenise and streamline the development of the maritime sector, along with promoting ease of doing business by eliminating unnecessary delays, disagreements and defining responsibilities, according to the ministry.

It will incorporate state maritime boards in the national framework. Additionally, the Maritime State Development Council (MSDC) will ensure cooperative federalism where Centre and state/UT governments will work together towards preparing progressive road map for the country.

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The redundant provisions of the Act have been deleted or replaced with contemporaneous provisions. Further, existing penalties in the Act which are outdated have been updated with respect to amounts and offences relevant to the present day scenario, the ministry stated.

According to the draft Bill, the Union minister for ports, shipping and waterways will be the chairperson of the Maritime State Development Council. The minister will have the powers of general superintendence and passing directions in relation to the conduct of the affairs of the Council.

What experts say

Maritime sector experts feel the Bill could face the same fate as the Major Ports Authority Act amendment, which was introduced in 2021 and faced criticism over the possibility of higher concentration of power in the hands of the Union government, which controls 12 major ports of India, according to a Business Standard report.

Senior officials in the ministry said that the Bill seeks to create a level-playing field for all ports as the major ports are under the aegis of Central regulations while non-major, especially private ports, function through respective state maritime boards and local legislations, the report added.

Sector watchers also stressed on the lack of provision of participation from the private sector, whose role in the port sector has been growing over the last decade. A Mumbai-based port sector expert said there was a growing need for private sector players to have some participation in the MSDC, according to the report.

India’s coastline

India has a 7,500 km long coastline, 14,500 km of potentially navigable waterways and strategic location on key international maritime trade routes.

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About 95% of India’s trade by volume and 65% by value is done through maritime transport facilitated by ports.

“Under the aegis of the Sagarmala project of the Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways, several initiatives on port-led development have been identified and launched. The ongoing developments and committed investments (public and private) in ports need to be aided by scientific and consultative planning, with a keen focus on ever increasing safety, security and environmental issues,” the ministry said.

Why TN opposed draft bill in 2021

Last year, Tamil Nadu had opposed the draft Indian Ports Bill, 2021, dealing with the management of minor ports, with Chief Minister MK Stalin writing to his counterparts of eight states including West Bengal and Kerala, calling for their objection to the proposal.

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According to the existing Indian Ports Act, the powers to plan, develop, regulate and control minor ports vest with the state governments concerned but the latest draft “proposes to change this and transfer many of these powers to MSDC, which has so far been only an advisory body,” he had said.

“Further to this, many powers currently exercised by state governments would be taken over by the Union government,” he had written in his letter to the CMs of Gujarat, Goa, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal and Puducherry.

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