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Mercantile Express Co. Ltd. Vs. Assistant Collector of Customs and ors. - Court Judgment

LegalCrystal Citation
SubjectCustoms
CourtKolkata High Court
Decided On
Case NumberMatter No. 155 of 1955
Judge
Reported inAIR1958Cal630,62CWN661,1978(2)ELT552(Cal)
ActsTariff Act, 1934; ;Code of Civil Procedure (CPC) , 1908
AppellantMercantile Express Co. Ltd.
RespondentAssistant Collector of Customs and ors.
Excerpt:
- .....water in a particularchannel. these therefore cannot be considered to fall within the purview of 'steel structures' forconstruction of bridges assessable under item 63 (9) indian customs tariff as contended by the appellants. the goods in question were thereforecorrectly assessed to duty under item 63 (28) indian customs tariff. i see no reason to interfere with the assistant collector's order in original. the appeal is accordingly rejected.'i have come to the conclusion that not one of thereasons put forward by the collector of customsin the appeal can be sustained as a matter of law and as a question of construction of item 63 (9) and item 63 (28) of the indian customs tariff. 3. it is admitted that the material in question is fabricated corrugated steel sheets. item 63 (28) of the.....
Judgment:
ORDER

P.B. Mukharji, J.

1. This is an application under Article226 of the Constitution by Mercantile ExpressCo. Ltd. It is directed against the decision of the Assistant Collector for Appraisement, dated 30th June, 1955, assessing Armco Nestable Culvertscomplete with accessories under Item 63 (28) of the First Schedule of the Import Tariff under the Indian Tariff Act. The applicant appealed to theCollector of Customs who dismissed the appeal on11-7-1955.

2. The appellate order of the Customs states the reason for assessing under Item 63 (28) of theIndian Customs Tariff in the following terms :

'It appears from the descriptive literature produced that Armco Nestable Culverts in question are made of fabricated corrugated steel sheets. These arc used as tunnelled drain for the passageof water under road bridges The main function of these culverts is to divert water in a particularchannel. These therefore cannot be considered to fall within the purview of 'steel structures' forconstruction of bridges assessable under Item 63 (9) Indian Customs Tariff as contended by the appellants. The goods in question were thereforecorrectly assessed to duty under Item 63 (28) Indian Customs Tariff. I see no reason to interfere with the Assistant Collector's order in original. The appeal is accordingly rejected.'

I have come to the conclusion that not one of thereasons put forward by the Collector of Customsin the appeal can be sustained as a matter of law and as a question of construction of Item 63 (9) and Item 63 (28) of the Indian Customs Tariff.

3. It is admitted that the material in question is fabricated corrugated steel sheets. Item 63 (28) of the Indian Customs Tariff must be remembered to be a residuary provision. In naming the article in this item the language used is 'all sorts of iron and steel and manufactures thereof not otherwise specified'. Application of a residuary article must always be made with a good deal of caution for it can only be attracted where either expressly, or by necessary implication no provision can be found to apply to the articles in question. The other consideration to insist is that a citizen cannot be taxed except by the clearest language of Statute or by its most compelling implication, and cannot be taxed by doubt and vagueness.

4. The applicant's contention is that the assessment should have been made under Item 63 (9). In naming the article under this item adifference is made between articles of British manufacture and not of British manufacture. The language is

'Iron or steel structures, fabricated partiallyor wholly, not otherwise specified, if made mainly or wholly of iron or steel bars, sections, plates, orsheets, for the construction of buildings, bridges, tanks, well curbs, trestles, towers and similar structures or for parts thereof, but not including builders' hardware or any of the articles specified in Item Nos. 72, 72 (3), 74 (1), 75 (3), 75 (4) or 76 (1).'

5. A good deal of the controversy in this case between the Customs and the applicant centres round the word 'bridge'. The controversy is whether a culvert is a bridge or a bridge a culvert. The Customs Authorities' conclusion is that steel structures to come under Item 63 (9) of the Indian Customs Tariff must be for the construction of bridges only and that culverts are not bridges. Therefore, they came to the conclusion that Item 63 (9) was not the proper provision under which assessment of these articles should be made.

6. The reasoning of the Customs Authorities appears to me to be entirely wrong. Their error lies in confining the Steel Structures merely for the construction of bridges, and in not remembering the other material and significant words 'tanks, buildings, well curbs, trestles, towers and similar structures' in Item 63 (9) of the Customs Tariff. I am satisfied that even if culverts are not 'bridges', according to Engineering Experts, the word 'culvert' does in the context come under the expression 'similar structures' in Item 63 (9). Mr. G.P. Kar, learned counsel for the Customs, invited my attention to the dictionary meaning of the words 'bridges' and 'culverts'. I do not want to quote the various meanings given to the expressions 'bridge' and 'culvert'. 'Culvert in common parlance would come under the expression 'bridges', and even if it did not, it would, on the principles of ejusdem generis, come under the construction of the expression 'similar structures' in Item 63 (9). I find, however, that a road culvert is regarded as a bridge structure, even in Engineering terminology. The Standard Specifications And 'Code of Practice for Road Bridges _ Section 1) -- General Features of Design published by the Indian Roads Congress, New Delhi, 1956, pages 3 and 4, contain a fairly good authoritative and sensible guidance on the subject. Before I quote from the Standard Specifications And Code of Practice, it is necessary to say a word on the authority of this specification. The object of the Standard Specifications And Code of Practice is to establish a common procedure for the design and construction of road bridges in India. It says that the publication is meant to serve as a guide for both the designing and construction engineer. At page 2 it defines 'bridges' in the following terms:

1. Bridges : The term 'bridges' as used in this Code will mean all types of structures, such as culverts, cause-ways and viaducts unless it is repugnant to the context,

7. Culverts : A road culvert is a bridge structure having a gross width of 20 feet or less between the faces of the abutments or extreme ventage boundaries.'If an authoritative body and organisation like the Indian Roads Congress can define a road 'culvert' as a 'bridge structure', I do not see any reason why it should not be so regarded, and from that point of view, culverts come within the meaningof the word 'bridges'. It will be more so within the meaning of the words 'similar structures' appearing in Item 63 (9).

7. I, therefore, hold that Armco Copper bearing galvanised corrugated interchangeable Nestable steel culverts complete with accessories, the subject matter of this application, have been wrongly assessed under Item 63 (28) of the Indian Customs Tariff and should have been assessed under Item 63 (9) of the said Tariff. The order of the Collector of Customs cannot be sustained in law. Both the Appraiser and the Collector clearly travelled beyond their jurisdiction in making the assessment under Item 63 (29) of the Tariff, The difference in duty is tremendous. In one case under Item 63 (9) the duty payable would not exceed a sum of Rs. 7,900/- or thereabout, whereas in the other case under Item 63 (28) the duty payable is Rs. 73,315/87- although the invoiced purchase price is Rs. 2,35,750/- only.

8. Having expressed my view of the law and the construction of Item 63 (9) and (28) of the Indian Customs Tariff, I cannot help averting to the fact that in 1953 these very similar articles were imported by the Superintending Engineer, Bhakra Dam Area No. 1 Nangal Township, Punjab, and they were assessed under Item 63 (9) of the Tariff by the Customs Authorities themselves. The Customs now say that they are not bound by their previous decisions. Whether the doctrine of precedent? applies in its full rigour to Administrative Agencies and Officers, and whether a reasonable latitude should be given to them or administrative tribunals to correct or modify their previous decisions may still remain a debatable controversy in the would of law; nevertheless I am clearly of the opinion that neither the Appraiser nor the Collector of Customs can change his mind from time to time in respect of the same articles by assessing them in the case of one importer under one section and then assessing them for another importer under different section. To allow the Customs to do so will lead to utter confusion in the very basis and principles of taxation and grave uncertainty in business and foreign trade of India. Its more serious result will be the most unfair discrimination of taxes in respect of the same goods with regard to different importers. That cannot be permitted by the Constitution which insists on the equality of law as one of its fundamental guarantees. I am therefore inclined to hold that the Customs are bound by their own precedents in administering taxing statutes involving the very basis of taxation in respect of a particular article and not leave it to them to modify their own previous decisions but to leave it to them to apply to Courts or Parliament or Legislatures as the case may be to put the law beyond doubt. In a recent Tariff Ruling of the Department C. B. R. No. 36 (221) -- Cus, III/55 dated 29-12-55 T.R.208/55 it has been said that Armco Nestable Steel Culverts are assessable under Item 63 (28). These Rulings are in the nature of administrative directions or guides. This departmental Ruling, however, came after the assessment in this case had been made in July, 1955 and cannot either bind or affect this assessment. These departmental instructions, guides or rulings can always be examined by Courts of law and iffound wrong in law, can be overruled and set aside by the Courts. Law cannot be finally made by these departmental instructions or what are called departmental rulings. They are always subject to judicial decisions of Courts of law. If the law requires change in the light of such judicial decisions, it can be done only by the proper legislative authority, which in this case is Parliament. It the administration itself feels the need of changing its mind that is prima facie proof that law is dubious on the point and should be set right by legislation.

9. Before I conclude I nced only say that in paragraph 7 of the affidavit of B.N. Dutt, the Assistant Collector of Customs for Appraisement, an attempt has been made to make out a case that these culverts are not structures at all and that they are not designed to carry load and, therefore, they should not come under Item 63 (9)' but should come under Item 63 (28) of the Indian Customs Tariff. In support of that contention the alleged statement of the Chief Engineer of the Government of Assam was relied on. Incidentally, these goods were being imported for certain constructional work in Assam. That obviously is a wholly incorrect statement of the Customs Authorities. The affidavit of Kamaleswar Barua, Additional Chief Engineer, Public Work Department (Roads and Buildings Wing) of the Government of Assam, affirmed 011 25-9-1956, distinctly says in paragraph 3 thereof that these materials are fabricated steel structures and that they are used for construction of bridges and culverts. In fact, Mr. Barua says also that it is incorrect that he said that the culverts were not intended to take load. In paragraph 4 of his affidavit he says : 'I said that the culverts made of Armco steel sheets, constitute a road structure and as such are intended to take load transmitted on them by road traffic'. He describes that allegation by Assistant Collector of Customs for Appraisement, B.N. Dutt, as wrongly made and' may have been inspired by Dutt's own personal note which he might have made at the interview between Mr. Barua and the Customs Officials. Finally India's Standard Specifications as laid down by the Indian Road Congress, which I have , quoted above defines culvert as a structure.

10. On fact and law, therefore, this orderof appraisement and assessment cannot be sustained and I set aside such assessment. I, therefore,.make the Rule for Certiorari and Mandamus absolute in terms of prayers (a) and (b) of the petition and I direct the Customs Authorities to proceed according to the law laid down in this judgment and to assess these goods under Item 63 (9)of the Customs Tariff If by such assessment anymoney becomes refundable to the applicant, the-same should be refunded to the applicant aftersuch fresh assessment according to law.


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