Crew change in Kerala gets entangled in light house dues

The levy of light house dues on ships arriving at or departing from a port in India has taken a controversial turn following the divergent stand taken by the Customs Department on collecting the statutory levy during crew change on ships at the outer anchorages of two ports in Kerala.

Light house dues are not levied on ships arriving at the outer anchorage of Central Government-owned Cochin Port Trust, which has become a favourite location for ship-owners and managers for crew change since April, in the midst of travel restrictions imposed during the pandemic.

A few nautical miles away at the Kerala Government-owned Vizhinjam port, near the state capital Thiruvananthapuram, Customs authorities are demanding the payment of light house dues on ships calling for crew change. For Vizhinjam, which emerged on the world crew change map in July due to its proximity to the international shipping route and deep draft, the light house dues have become an irritant in attracting more ships.

Light house dues are levied on foreign going vessels at Rs 92 per twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) on container vessels and at Rs 8 per tonne on ships other than container vessels, once in 30 days, according to rates notified in the gazette on November 26, 2014.

The Customs Department is tasked with the collection of light house dues. The levy adds a extra few lakhs to the cost of crew change.

Two ship agents in Vizhinjam have secured interim stay orders from the Kerala High Court against the demand for levy of light house dues by the Customs Department on ships calling at Vizhinjam for crew change.

Dowins Resources Pvt Ltd, a local steamer agent, contended in court that the demand of Customs was “illegal and arbitrary”. Dowins claimed that it was “not liable to pay light house dues” as the crew change was done on ships lying outside the port limits of Vizhinjam port and hence the Light House Act 1927 was “not applicable”.

In the interim order on Capital Holdings, another steamer agent, the court directed the petitioner to submit a bond to meet the requirements of light due charges if the petition is dismissed.

Light house dues are collected on ships at all the ports in India and Cochin “cannot be” an exception, a top official at the Directorate General of Lighthouses and Lightships, said.

“Port clearance cannot be given without paying light house dues. Unless the port clears, the ship cannot move out,” he said. “Port authorities can’t permit the vessel to leave the port unless all clearances are in place. The Customs have to give clearance because it is the agent for collecting the light house dues,” he asserted.

“I don’t know whether ships arriving for crew change at the outer anchorage of Cochin Port Trust will get covered under the light house dues; I have not applied my mind to that,” said Mohammed Yousaf, Commissioner of Customs, Cochin, when asked why light house dues were not collected from ships during crew change at the outer anchorage of Cochin Port Trust.

He said light house dues are “not a major levy, it is on the fringes”.

“Incidentally we are collecting this levy. And that is not the Customs levy; it is some other dues of the government, but it is regularly collected,” Mohammed said.

“Normally, crew change does not become an issue; now that it has become an issue because of the coronavirus, let me apply my mind to that and look into the issue,” he stated.

“Suppose, there is a short levy, then its not that I have to collect it immediately as arrears. I have to raise a demand, notify Cochin Port Trust and then I’ll do something on that by calling the steamer agents or issuing a notice,” he said.

“Since you have raised the topic, let me see whether it is actually being collected or not from Cochin. And, if it is not collected, let me see what are the provisions,” he added, confirming that port clearance is not given if the light house dues are not paid.

Ship agents in Kochi said that port charges, light house dues and other charges are not collected during crew change at the outer anchorage of Cochin Port Trust because it is not considered cargo operations.

“Crew change is done to evacuate seafarers stranded on board ships due to coronavirus induced travel restrictions. To promote India as a crew change destination, the government should grant exemption from payment of light house dues to ships undertaking crew change,” he said.

Source: The Hindu Business Line