Supreme Court: The Division Bench of L. Nageswara Rao and Vineet Saran*, JJ., quashed the confiscation order of Customs and Central Excise Commission confiscating land, building, plant and machinery of Rathi Ispat Ltd. for lacking statutory backing. The Bench observed that the existing law only permit confiscation of goods and no land, building can be confiscated under the Central Excise Rules, 2017.
Chronology of Events
- The Commissioner, Customs and Central Excise, Ghaziabad (Commissioner) had imposed a penalty of Rs.7,98,03,000 and confiscated the land, building, plant and machinery of Rathi Ispat Ltd. (RIL) under Rule 173Q(2) of the Central Excise Rules, 1944 on 25-11-1997.
- However, the said order was set aside by the Customs, Excise & Gold (Control) Appellate Tribunal (now CESTAT) for being contrary to principles of natural justice, and the matter was remanded back for de novo proceedings.
- Subsequently, subrule 2 of Rule 173Q of the Central Excise Rules, 1944, came to be omitted by a notification dated 12-05-2000.
- In 2005, RIL availed credit from the consortium of banks with the Appellant/Punjab National Bank being the lead bank, and mortgaged all its movable and immovable properties for securing the loan.
- By the order dated 26-03-2007, the Commissioner confirmed the demand of excise duty of Rs.7,98,02,226 and a penalty of Rs.7,98,03,000 on RIL. The Commissioner also ordered, under rule 173Q(2) of the 1944 Rules, for the confiscation of all the land, building, plant, machinery and materials used in connection with manufacture and storage.
- Similarly, the Central Excise Commissioner, vide order dated 29-03-2007, confirmed a demand of central excise duty amounting to Rs.2,67,00,348 and Rs.74,24,332 from RIL and also imposed a penalty of Rs.3,41,24,68 and further, under rule 173Q(2) of the 1944 Rules, ordered confiscation of land, building, plant, machinery, material, conveyance etc.
RIL’s Default in Clearing the Loan
Since RIL defaulted in clearing the loan amount and had failed to liquidate outstanding dues, the Appellant bank issued notice to RIL under section 13(2) of the SARFAESI Act, 2002, however, Commissioner, Customs and Central Excise had already confiscated the property by virtue of Rule 173Q(2) of Rules, 1944. Aggrieved, the appellant bank approached the Allahabad High Court with its grievances, however dismissing the petition, the High Court held that if any property has been confiscated it vests in the state and no person can claim any right, title, or interest over it, further the High Court opined that the bank had no locus standi to challenge the order as RIL had already preferred an appeal against confiscation.
Question of Law
- Whether the Commissioner could have invoked the powers under Rule 173(Q)(2) of Central Excise Rules, 1944 on 26-03-2007 and 29-03-2007 when on such date, the rule 173Q(2) was not on the Statue Book having been omitted w.e.f. 17-05-2000?
- Whether in the absence of any provisions providing for First Charge in relation to Central Excise dues in the Central Excise Act, 1944, the dues of the Excise department would have priority over the dues of the Secured Creditors or not?
Validity of Confiscation Order
The Bench noted that in the impugned order, the High Court had not considered that on the date of the confiscation orders Rule 173Q(2) stood omitted from the statute books. Rejecting the contention of the respondent that notwithstanding the omission of Section 173Q(2) from the 1944 Rules the proceedings were entitled to continue on account of Section 38A(c) and Section 38A(e) of the Central Excise Act, 1944, read along with Section 6 of the General Clauses Act, 1897 as misplaced and lacking statutory backing, the Bench opined that the proceedings initiated under the erstwhile Rule 173Q(2) would come to an end on the repeal of the said Rule 173Q(2).
The Bench followed the decision of Kolhapur Canesugar Works Ltd. v. Union of India, (2000) 2 SCC 536, wherein it had been held that Section 6 of the General Clauses Act, 1897 is applicable where any Central Act or Regulation made after commencement of the General Clauses Act repeals any enactment. It is not applicable in the case of omission of a “Rule”. Secondly, Section 38A(c) and 38A(e) of the Central Excise Act, 1944, are attracted only when “unless a different intention appears”.
Noticeably, in the instant case the legislature had clarified its intent to not restore/revive the power of confiscation of any land, building, plant machinery etc., after omission of the provisions which could be inferred from the fact that power to confiscate any land, building, plant, machinery etc. after omission had not been introduced in the subsequent Central Excise Rules, 2001, Central Excise Rules, 2002 and Central Excise Rules, 2017.
Additionally, this intent was also fortified by the fact that the newly enacted Rule 28 of the Rules of 2001, Rule 28 of the Rules of 2002 and Rule 28 of the Rules of 2017, did not provide for confiscation of any land, building, plant, machinery etc. and their consequent vesting in the Central Government, as Rule 28 only provided for vesting in the Central Government of the “Goods” confiscated by the Central Excise Authorities under the Excise Act, 1944.
Whether the dues of the Excise department create a First Charge?
In UTI Bank Ltd. v. Commissioner Central Excise, 2006 SCC Online Madras 1182, it had been held that since there is no specific provision claiming “first charge” in the Central Excise Act and the Customs Act, the claim of the Central Excise Department cannot have precedence over the claim of secured creditor, viz., the petitioner Bank. Similarly, in Union of India v. SICOM Ltd., (2009) 2 SCC 121, it was observed that prior to insertion of Section 11E in the Central Excise Act, 1944 w.e.f. 08-04-2011, there was no provision in the Act inter alia, providing for First Charge on the property of the assessee or any person under the Act of 1944.
Further, section 35 of the SARFAESI Act, 2002 inter alia, provides that the provisions of the SARFAESI Act shall have overriding effect on all other laws. Therefore, the provisions of Section 11E of the Central Excise Act, 1944 are subject to the provisions contained in the SARFAESI Act, 2002. Therefore, the Bench held that the Secured Creditor-Bank would have a First Charge on the Secured Assets.
In the light of above, the Bench concluded that the Commissioner of Customs and Central Excise could not have invoked the powers under Rule 173Q(2) of the Central Excise Rules, 1944 on 26-03-2007 and 29-03-2007 for confiscation of land, buildings etc., when on such date, the said Rule 173Q(2) was not in the Statute books, having been omitted by a notification dated 12-05-2000. Secondly, the dues of the secured creditor, i.e. the bank, would have priority over the dues of the Central Excise Department. Accordingly, the appeal was allowed and the confiscation orders were quashed.
[Punjab National Bank v. Union of India, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 227, decided on 24-02-2022]
*Judgment by: Justice Vineet Saran
For the Appellant: Dhruv Mehta, Senior Counsel
For Union of India: K.M. Nataraj, Additional Solicitor General
Kamini Sharma, Editorial Assistant has put this report together