The Delhi High Court while refusing as many as 22 petitions by various Exporters and Importers refused to exempt Importers or Exporters from charges pertaining to ground rent, demurrage, container detention charges during the COVID-19 lockdown period.
Facts of the case:-
The petitioners, in these petitions, seek a writ of mandamus in a situation involving contractual rights between private individuals and the regulation, thereof, by statutory/Governmental authorities in the public interest. The permissible extent, if at all, of such regulation, falls for consideration. The petitioners seek across-the-board amnesty from paying penal charges to CFSs, ICDs, and Shipping lines, during the entire period of lockdown enforced by the Government consequent on the COVID-19 pandemic. Inability to move or transport their export/import goods, during the said period, is pleaded as the justification. It is a matter of record that some importers did, in fact, clear their consignments even during this period. Assessment of the extent to which any particular importer or exporter was impacted would, by its very nature, involve inherently disputed questions of fact.
Interpretation of law:-
The petitioners’ stand is that irrespective of the individual facts of each case, orders and circulars issued by the MOS, DGS, and CBIC entitle all importers and exporters to amnesty as sought, across the board. Mr. Sibal, counsel on behalf of one of the petitioners also sought to press, into service, Article 14 of the Constitution of India. It was contended that ICDs and CFSs were themselves extended various ameliorative benefits, by way of waiver of penal charges, by the Port authorities. Refusal to extend such benefits to the importers and exporters, it was sought to be submitted, would, therefore, be discriminatory and violative of Article 14.
The division bench of Justice C.Hari Shankar and Justice Rajiv Sahai Endlaw while dismissing all the pleas said that “It is not open to the Court – just as it was not open to the executive authorities – to approach the matter solely from the point of view of the importers or exporters, unmindful of the difficulties which were faced by the ICDs and CFSs during the lockdown, and the constraints under which they operated. Equity inherently inheres in the exercise of jurisdiction under Article 226, and we are not persuaded to hold that the equities of the present case are entirely in favor of the petitioner importers/exporters, and to the prejudice of the respondent ICDs/CFSs/shipping lines, as would warrant our inference under Article 226 of the Constitution of India.”