Saturday, December 1, 2007

V.M. Syam Kumar BAL, LL.M. (Maritime Law)[Faculty Member for Maritime law, National University for Advanced Legal Studies, Cochin]

After enduring a long and protracted trial, which is a punishment in itself, the seafarers of MT Dadabhai Naoroji and MT Bhagat Singh might be convinced that Justice will invariably be rendered by Indian Courts, albeit late.The Captain, Chief Officer and Chief Engineer of both the vessels who were charged under different sections of the Indian Penal Code have been acquitted of all the charges leveled against them and have been set free. Charges included causing death by negligence.Events that led to the trial were two separate fire incidents on the serene back waters of Cochin ( The same occured near the Cochin Oil Terminus. 5 persons had died from the incident that happened on 22.7.90 and one person died due to the separate incident on 13.10.1991. Though there were umpteen plausible reasons for leakage of inflammable substances in to the backwaters from the Cochin Oil Terminus leading to fire, the local police had chosen the easiest way out by blindly implicating the seafarers of the above said tanker vessels, which happened to be there for loading cargo at the time of the incident. They were the easiest target, say ‘sitting ducks’.The legal battle went on for more than a decade and a half. It’s heartening to note that now all the seafarers implicated in the said incidents have been acquitted of all the charges.The whole episode has brought to the fore the vulnerability of seafarers and the lack of national laws to deal with such incidents in line with the UNCLOS and the MARPOL.Part XB of the (Indian) Merchant Shipping Act, 1958 deals with Civil Liability for Pollution Damage and Part XC deals with International Oil Pollution Compensation. Part XIA of the Act lays down the provisions relating to Prevention and Containment of Pollution of the Sea by Oil.The incidents involving MT Dadabhai Naoroji and MT Bhagat Singh were beyond the purview of the provisions contained in the said parts. Incidentally, an inquiry as envisaged under Part XII of the (Indian) Merchant Shipping Act, 1958 had already been conducted in to the incidents.The seafarers would have been saved from facing a long and grueling trial before a Magistrate Court had the inquiry envisaged under the MS Act been the final one with respect to the incident, capable of judiciously deciding their culpability, of course with appellate remedies from the same kept open. But the law as it stands now relegates the said inquiry into only a fact finding mission or formal administrative inquiry, with out the trappings or sanctity of a judicial inquiry. There is a need for an appropriate amendment to the relevant section of Part XII of the (Indian) Merchant Shipping Act, 1958 so that the seafarer doesn’t have to face the trauma of two proceedings, one under the Act and the other under the penal law of the land.

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