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India is reworking its Merchant Shipping Act

February 13, 2024
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India is reworking its Merchant Shipping Act

NEW DELHI : India is looking at reworking its merchant shipping laws as it replaces the existing eponymous Act of 1958. The new provisions will look to include up-to-date international maritime conventions to which the country is a party; allow for easier registration of ships under Indian flag by NRIs, overseas citizens of India, corporates including limited liability partnerships; enable electronic registration of vessels and granting recognition to e-documents like log-books, record books.

Merchant shipping refers to activities that are carried out for commerce rather than for defence or warfare. Changes to the law that have been proposed are currently being deliberated with the Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways being the Nodal Ministry.

The proposals

Proposed under the new provisions is a three-tier dispute resolution mechanism. It will look to resolve disagreements arising between ship-owners and salvors (those engaged in salvaging ships lost at sea), and also between seafarers and owners or masters or agents of ship. The resolution mechanism will look “to make the award of the shipping master enforceable instead of enforcement by a Magistrate,” an official aware of the new draft rules told.

Previously ambiguous terms like “abandoned vessels” have been defined, while the new rules call for action against “unsafe vessels” too. “The Centre has been empowered to direct port authorities and others to take measures in respect of abandoned vessels,” the official said.

The Merchant Shipping Act of 1958 provided for registration of Indian ships and allows enabling provisions looking to accelerate the pace of development of the sector. The Act is divided into 24 parts, each part dealing with specific aspects of merchant shipping like registration of ships, sailing vessels and fishing vessels, National Shipping Board, manning of ships, engagement, discharge and repatriation of seamen and apprentices, safety of passenger and cargo ships, control of Indian ships and ships engaged in the coasting trade, collisions, prevention and control of pollution of the sea by oil from ships, limitation of shipowners’ liability, civil liability for oil pollution damage, among others.

New areas covered

An official aware of the on-going discussions said, new provisions include a section in marine incidents and emergent response. The idea is to provide confidence to ship-owners that there are appropriate statutory measures for safety of vessels.

Stringent rules, including persecution and conviction, is being mulled for prevention of pollution and containment of the same. Air pollution arising out of ships operating in the sea has also been covered with appropriate actions.

According to the official, there will be reduction in compliance burden under the new rules. It will also promote ease of doing business, embrace digital tech, improve ownership criteria and also provide a statutory framework for handling maritime emergencies.

Incidentally, there were previous attempts at re-working the Merchant Shipping Act in 2016. But the then Bill fell through in May 2019 with the 16th Lok Sabha being dissolved. Re-working began in February – March 2021 and between July 2022 and July 2023 the Legislative Department reviewed the draft and there was receipt of concurrence.

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