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Thursday, Mar 18, 2004

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Opinion - Editorial

A bar sans reason

THE DIRECTOR-GENERAL OF Shipping has, perhaps unwittingly, set a cat amongst the pigeons by imposing age-related norms for tankers on international voyages to and from any Indian port regardless of the cargo carry. The Government has decided to ban, with effect from April 1, entry into Indian waters of all crude oil and product tankers (both foreign and Indian flag) that are more than 25 years old. Tanker charterers and oil terminals have been directed to exercise due diligence in ensuring the quality of tankers in-chartered.

With hardly a fortnight left for the restriction to come into force, several questions about the appropriateness of the new norm are being raised . The stated objective of the restriction is to address possible environmental hazard from sub-standard tankers calling at Indian ports. According to the Director-General (Shipping), many countries have decided to tighten inspection of oil tankers regardless of their age, in order to check entry of substandard vessels into their ports. Admittedly, the apprehensions are not unreal. Around the world, oil slicks have been occurring much too often for comfort and the fallout, including threat to marine life, has a huge cost attached to it. Age and maintenance of tankers carrying liquid bulk cargoes are important considerations in maritime services. While the concern over environment protection is laudable, the latest age restriction on tankers covers in one sweep all kinds of liquid cargoes, both hazardous and otherwise. And therein lies the rub. Ironically, notwithstanding the stated objective of environment protection, the scope of the age norm does not cover gas carriers and dedicated chemical tankers. On the other hand, tankers carrying essential food products and innocuous liquid cargoes that are environment-friendly, such as vegetable oil, will face restrictions while calling at Indian ports. Stretched to the extreme, even a tanker carrying fresh water would be covered by the circular.

The non-application of mind is patent. It is obvious that in his zeal to ensure the safety of the country's shoreline, the policymaker got carried away. The logical nexus between the legislation (age restriction on tanker) and the objective (environmental protection) is largely missing. Imposing the new law across the board without taking into account the nature of the cargo, especially at a time when the ocean freight market is continually firming up, is sure to result in higher freight for cargoes coming into the country and add to inflationary conditions. Within the shipping industry, some are even questioning the authority of the Directorate General (Shipping) to pronounce such a restriction. There is an obvious need to revisit the rationale of the restriction insofar as it concerns tankers that carry non-hazardous cargoes.

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