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India Modernizes its Merchant Shipping Laws: A Comprehensive Overview

India Modernizes its Merchant Shipping Laws: A Comprehensive Overview

India Modernizes its Merchant Shipping Laws: A Comprehensive Overview

India is in the process of updating its merchant shipping laws, replacing the outdated Merchant Shipping Act of 1958. The new provisions aim to align with current international maritime conventions that India is part of. Additionally, they seek to streamline the registration process for ships under the Indian flag, making it easier for NRIs, overseas citizens of India, and corporate entities including limited liability partnerships to register vessels. One significant change is the introduction of electronic registration of vessels and the recognition of e-documents like log books and record books.

Merchant shipping involves commercial activities at sea, distinct from military or defense operations. The proposed changes are currently under deliberation with the Ministry of Ports, Shipping, and Waterways leading the discussions. One notable addition is a three-tier dispute resolution mechanism to address conflicts between ship owners and salvors, as well as disputes involving seafarers, owners, masters, or agents of ships. This mechanism aims to make the decisions of the shipping master enforceable, replacing the previous enforcement by a Magistrate.

Ambiguous terms such as “abandoned vessels” have been clarified, and the new rules also address “unsafe vessels,” granting the central government authority to direct port authorities to take action regarding abandoned vessels. The Merchant Shipping Act of 1958, with its 24 parts, covered various aspects of merchant shipping, including ship registration, safety measures, pollution control, and liability.

The proposed revisions include a focus on marine incidents and emergency response, aiming to instill confidence in ship-owners regarding vessel safety. There are also plans to introduce stringent measures to prevent pollution and contain any incidents of pollution, including air pollution from ships operating at sea.

The new rules aim to reduce the compliance burden for stakeholders, promote ease of doing business, embrace digital technologies, enhance ownership criteria, and establish a statutory framework for handling maritime emergencies. Interestingly, previous attempts to revise the Merchant Shipping Act in 2016 fell through, but the process resumed in 2021, with the Legislative Department reviewing the draft between July 2022 and July 2023, culminating in the current efforts to modernize India’s merchant shipping laws.

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

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