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65 years after India's freedom, UK to scrap 'raj' era laws

Last updated on: September 13, 2012 15:31 IST

As debate continues in India about using laws drawn up during the 'raj' -- such as applying the sedition act to a cartoonist -- Britain is in the process of scrapping as many as 38 acts related to Indian Railways that were enacted between 1849 and 1942.

The laws have remained on the statute books in Britain even though India gained freedom in 1947. The 38 acts related to Indian Railways are part of a cull being carried out of several old pieces of legislation considered "as being spent, obsolete, unnecessary or otherwise not now of practical utility".

Law Commission sources told PTI on Thursday that the 38 acts related to Indian Railways are contained in the Statute Law (Repeals) Bill, and that the ministry of justice will present it to Parliament in the ongoing session next month.

The scrapping of the acts is due to completed by the end of this year. The 38 acts relate to the construction and maintenance of the railways network in India during British rule -- the first dated 1849 and the latest of 1942 -- and reflect the challenge of constructing and maintaining one of the largest railway networks in the world across vast distances in  British India.

The sources said the procedure for such a repeal bill involves a hearing before a joint committee of both Houses. That procedure has the effect of shortening the parliamentary process. The bill is expected to reach the statute book by the end of this year, the sources added.

The 38 acts include those enacted during the rule of the East India Company and later when the governance of India was1 taken over by the British Crown after India's first war of independence in 1857, and the railway network came under state control.

Some of the 38 acts are: the Great Indian Peninsula Railway Company Act, 1849; Assam Railways and Trading Company's Act, 1897; Oude Railway Act, 1858; Scinde Railway Act, 1857; Great Southern of India Railway Act, 1858; and the Bombay Baroda and Central India Railway Act 1942.

Setting out the historical context of the 38 acts, the draft bill notes that the benefits of harnessing travel by rail as a means of connecting British India were recognised by the East India Company in 1843, but it was unable (and unwilling) to finance the  construction and running costs on its own.

"The East India Company's solution was a quasi-public/private partnership arrangement whereby ownership, control and risk would be shared, underpinned and secured by a system of public guarantees", the bill notes.

It adds, "English companies were invited to bear the construction costs of the new rail network in India, and to own the relevant operational undertakings.

"In return, the East India Company (the quasi-public partner in the enterprise) would guarantee the railway shareholders a 5 per cent return on their capital investment, make available land without cost and offer 99 year operating contracts".

The first passenger train ran (under the auspices of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway Company) from Mumbai (Bombay) to Thane in April 1853, followed in August 1854 by the  inaugural run of the East Indian Railway Company between Howrah and Hooghly.

These early successes encouraged British private investment, which continued until 1868 (reaching a total of some 70 million pounds).

In 1858 the British Crown assumed direct governance of British India, and from 1868 onwards, the bill notes that 'either by the surrender of railway undertakings under the terms of the previous guarantees, or by direct investment and construction, the government of India embarked upon development of the railway network as a form of state enterprise'.

A new railway board was formed in 1905 under Sir Thomas Robertson, By then, the railway companies were simply operating companies, running the network on behalf of the government of British India.

The bill adds, "By 1920 the government owned almost three-quarters of the total railway mileage in India. This was nationalisation effected piecemeal. Nationalisation proper started in 1925 (following publication of the Acworth Report in 1921) when the state took over management of the East Indian and Great Indian Peninsula Railways.

"From 1929 to 1944 the bulk of the Indian railway network had been nationalised".

When Pakistan and India became independent in 1947, the railway system was divided. The Indian High Commission and the Railway Board were consulted as part of the repeal  process.

Prasun Sonwalkar in London
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