Fate of Bill to overhaul major ports hangs in the balance

P Manoj Mumbai | Updated on October 23, 2018 Published on October 22, 2018

The port workers unions have been opposing the move arguing that the new law was aimed at converting the port trusts into corporate bodies   -  CV Subrahmanyam

A much-awaited plan to convert 11 of the 12 Central government-owned ports that are currently run as ‘trusts’ into ‘authorities’ through a new law is now down to the wire.

A perception is also gaining ground that the government is “not serious” about the plan after taking the process almost to the finishing line.

The fate of the Major Port Authorities Bill — the biggest structural reform of the major ports in more than five decades and a show-piece initiative of the Narendra Modi government — hangs in the balance with only the winter session of Parliament offering a small window of opportunity to get it passed before the country goes to the polls to elect a new government in May next year.

Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari gave a cryptic reply when BusinessLine asked him on the chances of the Bill getting approved by Parliament in the upcoming winter session. “Mujhe malum nahin (I don’t know). It all depends on how the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha are going to function,” he said on October 20 in Mumbai.

Opposition from unions

The influential port workers unions have been opposing the move arguing that the new law was “aimed at converting the port trusts into corporate bodies under the guise of the ‘authorities’ set-up by invoking various clauses written in the Bill and pave the way for the privatisation of major ports”.

The government says it has no such agenda and the planned law was only meant to modernise the institutional structure of major port trusts by granting greater autonomy and flexibility and to professionalise their governance for speedier decision-making to help them compete with private ports.

The Bill was introduced in Parliament in 2016 and was referred to a standing committee which gave its recommendations in July last year. In February, the Cabinet approved some of the amendments suggested by the Parliamentary standing committee, which again failed to satisfy the aggrieved workers unions despite the government allowing two seats to labour unions on the board of each port authority from the earlier proposed one seat, to win them over to its side.

Currently, workers unions have two seats on the board of trustees of each port trust. The unions are now demanding that the Bill be scrapped.

The Bill was circulated among law makers in the monsoon session of Parliament but could not be taken up for discussion and voting because it was “low on priority with nine other Bills vying for the government’s attention”.

“We would like the Bill to get passed in December,” Shipping Secretary Gopal Krishna told this newspaper. “Hopefully, it will,” he quipped.

But, with the Opposition parties looking to pin the government down on a host of issues, including the controversial Rafale deal, to gain political mileage before the elections, the Winter Session is expected to be a wash out.

If the Bill misses the Winter Session it could spell trouble for the reform in case the 2019 polls throw up a different political combination to rule the nation.

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Published on October 22, 2018
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