Evolution of Maritime Laws in India

Aug 29, 2020


India has a long history of sea trades within and beyond the oceanic boundaries of the country. It has been stated in various historical records that in ancient times, there were many merchants and traders who used to come to India for trading goods and services and vice versa. So, many laws, rules, and regulations were enacted in this field. After Independence, the Government of India took serious consideration in enacting various laws and statutes to maintain healthy and effective trade practices through the seas.

Various laws implemented by the Colonial Government such as the Inland Steam Vessels Act, 1917, the Coasting Vessels Act, 1838, the Indian Ports Act, 1908, the Indian Merchant Shipping Act, 1923, the Merchant Seamen (Litigation) Act, 1946, the Control of Shipping Act, 1947, the Merchant Shipping Laws (Extension to the Acceding States and Amendment) Act, 1949, etc. All the above laws and statutes were not according to the prevailing Indian System. Thus, the Government after Independence implemented new laws and statutes for the enhancement of prevailing practices with respect to coastal trade. In addition to the above mentioned Acts, a series of laws and statutes were formulated by The British legislators during the period between the years 1823 and 1940 that governed certain parts of the Indian shipping industry, which included salvage, certification of seafarers, ship-owner’s liability, safety & line conventions and others. The jurisdiction for trial and adjudication of cases related to Shipping and Admiralty Acts in India was vested in The High Courts at Madras, Bombay and Calcutta.


Even during the post-independence period in India, the jurisdiction of Admiralty Courts of India was still with the Colonial powers. In the case of M. V. Elisabeth v. Harwan Investment and Trading Pvt Ltd,  it was held that High Courts of India hold a superior status than any other Court of law for deciding matters within India. It was stated that the High Courts of India had unlimited jurisdiction and their decision was final and binding. Thus after this landmark case, the principles of the International Convention on Maritime Laws were made applicable in India’s common law. The rationale behind applying the international convention was that there was no Indian law or statute in relation to Maritime claims. This was a departure from a long-standing custom of applying Maritime laws originating from British Legislations.

Admiralty Laws in India

There were several statutes which were made applicable in India like the Indian Shipping Merchants Act, the Indian Carriage of Goods by Sea Act, the  Indian Bills of Lading Act, the Major Port of Trust Act, and the Marine Insurance Act. These are few of the several legislations, including laws in relation to the employment of labours which were considered relevant as other Martine Acts. 

Maritime Law started evolving from customs and trade practices of people involved in India. Such trade practices were later developed into legal statutes through the codification of such practices into various legislations. However, a close analysis of such legislation revealed that there existed serious loopholes and thus it becomes inevitable to critically examine pre and post-independence era laws of Maritime and suggest amendments suitably. India has numerous ports to enable trade and through those ports, it deals with a huge number of cargoes per annum.  Therefore, many steps were taken by the government at different levels to improve the functioning of maritime law, by the construction of new ports, the introduction of various schemes, etc. Hence, a smooth functioning between the various factors was needed.

Maritime laws and the laws governing trade & commerce through the waterways play an inevitable role in the area of development as it is one of the key areas from which our country generates its revenue for the purpose of economic development. Various other statutes govern this aspect of shipping and its concerning trade practices. But the fact is that there are no strict regulations regarding the maintenance of vessels/ships, especially the ones which are used for international trade of certain materials from India to other parts of the world. The recent issue which took place at Alang port was one among many examples of misuse of our laws and statutes by foreign countries. Such actions must be strictly regulated as they pose a huge danger to the people in general as well as the environment. Proper management mechanisms on ship maintenance and breaking must be included by the State Maritime Boards so that the fitness level of the Ships remains unchanged. There should be adequate procedures for maintaining the ships so that it results in the increase of sea trade and commerce inside the country and with other countries as well.