Logistics

New Ports Bill: Centre, States gear up for confrontation

P Manoj Mumbai | Updated on June 23, 2021

Azhikkal Port in Kannur (file photo)   -  SK Mohan

TN CM’s utterances suggest that States are opposed even to the latest diluted avatar of the draft Bill

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin’s concern that the “Draft Indian Ports Bill 2021” written by the ministry of ports, shipping and waterways will “reduce the autonomous role of States in the regulation and management of minor ports” controlled by them, appears to be valid.

The latest version of the draft Indian Ports Bill that seeks to replace the Indian Ports Act 1908, has dropped an earlier proposal to set up a Maritime Port Regulatory Authority aimed at extending the Centre’s jurisdiction over ports owned by the State governments following objections from the States.

The Centre now plans to achieve the same goal through a “more acceptable” Centre-State mechanism christened the Maritime State Development Council (MSDC).

The constitution of the Council through an act of Parliament and its powers and functions bear this out clearly.

MSDC’s role

The Council shall make recommendations to the government on the adequacy of the existing legal framework or statutory compliances and suggest amendments for a more efficient and conducive framework for ports in India, suggest measures to facilitate competition and promote efficiency in the operation of ports and to facilitate growth of the port sector, among other issues.

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It will be tasked with assessing the future development of existing ports and new ports, both major and non-major ports, by the Central government or State governments either directly or through private participation.

It will formulate a national plan for the development of major and non-major ports, for both existing ports and new ports, and revise such plan from time to time which will be published in the gazette.

It will monitor the development of non-major ports in the States with a view to ensure their integrated development with major ports and the national plan and ensure transparency of port tariffs.

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For purpose of transparency, the Council may specify regulations for components of port tariff.

Member profile of Council

The Council will comprise the Central minister for ports, shipping and waterways, secretary in the ministry of ports, shipping and waterways, ministers looking after ports in maritime states/union territories, administrator of the union territory of Daman and Diu, three joint secretaries looking after ports, shipping and sagarmala in the central ministry of ports, shipping and waterways, joint secretary or equivalent rank official in the Indian Navy, Coast Guard and the Home Ministry looking after coastal security and the joint secretary in the ministry of environment, forest and climate change dealing with maritime and marine environment protection. The member secretary of the Council will be the joint secretary (sagarmala) in the ministry of ports, shipping and waterways.

All questions which come up at Council meetings shall be decided by a majority vote of the members present and voting, and in the event of an equality of votes, the chairperson or in his absence, the person presiding, shall have a second or casting vote.

The member profile of the Council reveals that it is tilted in favour of the Centre and hence its operation is expected to be largely Centre-driven.

Strong opposition

The success of the States in attracting private funds into the ports sector, particularly in developing greenfield ports, cannot be understated. It is the fear of ceding this control to the Centre that is roiling the States.

After the first draft of the Bill was released for consultation in January, the then CEO of AP Maritime Board, NP Ramakrishna Reddy, had strongly opposed it by writing to the ministry stating that the draft Bill is “discriminatory” and “ultra vires the Constitution” because ports are in the Concurrent list.

Gujarat had also expressed similar apprehensions.

Long-term adverse implications seen

The strident opposition from the States to the first draft of the Bill forced the ministry to re-write the draft in which the Maritime Port Regulatory Authority proposal was omitted along with many other controversial clauses.

But, Stalin’s utterances suggest that States are opposed even to the latest diluted avatar of the draft Bill as it seeks to achieve the Centre’s goal of extending its reach over minor ports for a ‘One Nation, One Port’ idea through a different route.

The present system, Stalin said, has led to good development of minor ports run by the States. The move of the Central government to bring a new Bill will have long-term adverse implications on the management of minor ports, as many powers currently exercised by State governments would be taken over by the Central government, if the Bill is passed, he said, while exhorting other coastal states and union territories to “take joint action to prevent any move to dilute the powers already vested with the states”.

Until the States are fully on board, it will be difficult for the Bill to sail through Parliament.

Published on June 23, 2021

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