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Junk Boilers Act and relook Seventh Schedule

Bibek Debroy
Irrespective of whether boilers needed oil and grease or not, inspectors did. Since 2014, there have been more relaxations, with self-certification pushed (Representational Image)

Boilers, that is, steam boilers, have been important enough to engage the attention of both Union and state governments. Boilers figure as entry no. 37 in the Concurrent List. I don't think anyone paid much attention to boilers in Constituent Assembly debates. Boilers figured in the "Concurrent Legislative List" (entry no. 21) of Government of India Act, 1935, and got included in the Seventh Schedule by default. In Government of India Act, 1919, boilers figured in the list of provincial subjects, but warranted no separate entry. They were simply mentioned as a sub-head under industrial matters (entry 26), along with "factories, settlement of labour disputes, electricity, gas, and smoke nuisances". Between 1919 and 1935, boilers increased in importance. It is easy to see why. The Indian Boilers Act of 1923 was passed "to consolidate and amend the law relating to steam-boilers". This was amended in 2007, and the then Minister of State in Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) moved the Bill, stating, "The Indian Boilers Act of 1923, which this Bill seeks to amend, served its purpose well in the initial years of its operation, but with revolutionary technological changes, with the expansion of the economy, with new technologies becoming available for boiler manufacturers and for boiler component-manufactures as also for users, it was considered necessary to introduce certain necessary amendments to the Bill to make it more effective, to lend it efficacy, practicality and a user-friendly ambience."

He also added, "You will also know that the State Government inspection gave rise to long delays, corruptions; and there were complaints of inappropriate certifications, etc. All of that is sought to be addressed by introducing new organisations and making other inspecting agencies in the private sector to come forward and render this extremely critical function." Irrespective of whether boilers needed oil and grease or not, inspectors did. Since 2014, there have been more relaxations, with self-certification pushed, though this is primarily the domain of states. Nevertheless, one should read "State Business Reform Action Plan", the implementation guide DIPP prepared for states. I am indebted to Arghya Sengupta of Vidhi for asking an interesting question. Why must boilers continue to be on the Concurrent List? This doesn't mean boilers should move from the Concurrent List to the State List. Why must boilers have a separate entry? Why can't they be covered under industrial safety clauses, as used to be the case under the 1919 Government of India Act? To state it more strongly, this isn't a question of amending and tweaking Indian Boilers Act. Why can't Indian Boilers Act be repealed?

Between 1919 and 1935, what ostensibly changed was enactment of Indian Boilers Act. In my view, what really changed was the report of the Boilers Law Committee. This was a committee set up in 1920 (FD Ascoli was the president), and it submitted a report in 1921. It was this Committee's report that led to Boilers Act of 1923. People often refer to this Committee, and to the explosion that occurred in Calcutta in 1863. I don't know how many have read the Ascoli Committee's report. It begins with the sentence, "The necessity for boiler legislation is due to the fact that the steam boiler is an extremely dangerous instrument, that is liable to explode with disastrous consequences, on account of faults in design and construction, the effects of wear, tear and usage and as the result of careless handling and management at the time of working." The world (and boilers) has moved on since then. The Calcutta explosion in 1863 led to a loss of 13 lives, and resulted in Act VI of 1864, which applied to Calcutta and its suburbs. Thereafter, two accidents in Bombay led to Act VI in Bombay in 1869, later extended after explosions in "Broach and Ahmedabad in 1871". Following the Committee's report, uniform all-India legislation, with government inspection, was introduced through the 1923 Boilers Act.

Reading the Ascoli report, I find the discussion comparing the United Kingdom and India extremely interesting. "It is important to remember that in the United Kingdom it is the custom to insure boilers against the risk of accident of explosion, and that on this account steam boilers are subject to inspection and control by influential Boiler Insurance Companies and Associations." Therefore, beyond provisions that applied to factories and workshops, Britain didn't have any system for government inspection of boilers, and no such legislation. "It has been suggested that it might be possible to adopt in India a system similar to that prevalent in the United Kingdom. We have carefully considered the suggestion, but have arrived at the conclusion that it is impracticable. The evidence that we have heard shows unanimously the popularity of official inspection and the confidence resulting from the fact that it is done by a Government agency. The inspection is generally efficient, effective and economical-far cheaper than would be possible in the hands of a private commercial concern, the ultimate aim of which must be the payment of a dividend to its shareholders. It is obvious that in India the same confidence would not be placed in inspection at the hands of a private commercial company." It is this perception that has changed. That's the reason we no longer need amendments to Boilers Act. We no longer need that specific legislation, and the specific entry in the Seventh Schedule. Boilers are only an example. The entire Seventh Schedule needs a relook.

(The author is Chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the PM. Views are personal)