One March day some years ago, I went to the Unaccompanied Baggage Centre at Indira Docks to clear some of my baggage that had come from the country where I used to live. I had declared all my belongings, including a fax machine, on an elaborate Baggage Declaration Form (BDF). Customs Officer H was assigned to inspect it and my stuff.
While doing so, H repeatedly told me that things were going to be "very difficult" because I had both brought the fax machine to India and actually declared it on my BDF. He kept asking why I had got myself an agent who had been foolish enough not to tell me what to do about the fax machine, and kept wondering why I was paying this agent. I didn't know what he was talking about, but I was determined not to pay a bribe.
I had a rolled up tube of posters that H wanted me to open and show him. He said, and I quote: "Some of these posters will look nice in my office".
Even though when he finished the inspection it was only 3:30 pm, he said I would have to return the following Monday for the valuation of my baggage for duty purposes. I asked H about "re-exporting" the fax machine since it was becoming clear that I would probably not be able to afford the duty on it. He said I would have to approach the Assistant Collector (AC) for permission to do that.
On that Monday, I went back to the UBC to meet H. While he was looking over my belongings to value them, I offered him various invoices for them, including for the fax machine. He got angry when I did this. When I asked him to consider that the fax machine, in particular, was over two years old, he got angrier and closed my file, saying that if I wanted to "argue", I had better just go straight to the AC. Another Customs Officer, sitting next to H, pointed out that I was only explaining my case, not arguing. That didn't stop H from berating me some more.
When I asked H when I could see the AC to ask about re-exporting the fax machine, he said to me "You are using up my time far in excess of the size of your case", and refused to tell me. So far I had got no idea of when and how I was to meet the AC, where he sat or indeed who he was.
That evening I spoke to a family friend, D, an ex-Customs Officer himself. I explained that H was refusing to give me any details on how to proceed, and asked if he (D) knew anyone I could ask for help about this re-export. D suggested I meet S, Superintendent at Indira Docks, who would instruct me. I did not ask D for any favours, nor did he ask S to do me any.
Two days later, I met S. He called H in to ask him the details of my case. H told S that on my previous visit I had been "rude and arrogant". He also told S that I had already met the AC, an officer called Joshi. This was a lie, as I had not met any Joshi, and had no idea who he was. H told S that Joshi, in his supposed meeting with me, had also observed and commented on my rude and arrogant behaviour. Hearing all this, S simply dismissed me, saying I was also being rude to him and was treating him "like a servant". I was astonished at this, because I had been consistently polite to S and H.
S then said I should just go see the AC. I asked when I might do so, and where the AC sat. S said I was being rude again, and refused to tell me.
I had been unfailingly polite and courteous to these two men. In response, they were rude and bullying; and H saw fit to lie about my having met Joshi. (I later found that Joshi had retired some days earlier).
Next, I approached the Collector of Customs, K, carrying a letter recounting my experience with S and H. He said I should meet the AC directly and promised that my case would be dealt with immediately. I met the AC next morning, and he issued an order permitting me to reexport the fax machine on payment of a fine. I paid it, left the fax machine in detention in the Customs warehouse while I arranged to ship it, and finally took the rest of my baggage home.
A friend of mine was travelling to the USA on some weeks later and agreed to carry the fax machine for me as part of her baggage. This would save me the expense of shipping it. So I approached the Collector of Customs (Appeals), who promptly issued me an order permitting my friend to carry the machine with her. I submitted a letter authorizing her to carry it for me, and she also submitted a letter indicating her willingness to take it. Both letters mentioned her passport number, her ticket number and her flight details.
However, when my agent approached S to get the fax machine released from the warehouse to move it to the airport, S refused to release it. He said he needed the two letters to be signed by a gazetted officer. Not only that, he wanted my friend's passport and ticket to be produced. The next day, I met the AC again. He made a few inquiries and found these were not required according to Customs rules, and in any case his order made no mention of these requirements. He wrote to S on my papers, instructing him to release the fax machine. However, when my agent met S with this, he refused again to release it, repeating his demand for me to get a gazetted officer to sign the letters.
As it was now a day before my friend's departure, and this was contrary to explicit instructions given to S and to Customs regulations, I could not help thinking S simply wanted to obstruct and harass me, for reasons known only to him.
So I went to meet S. As soon as I started to speak, he shouted: "Don't open your mouth. Don't talk to me. You will speak when I ask you to speak", and repeated this several times. As my fax machine was still in his clutches, I stayed silent. However, now he did not insist on the signatures of the gazetted officer. My agent was instructed that he could retrieve the fax machine next morning.
Which he did. At 930 pm that night, I went to the airport to hand over the fax machine to my friend when she left later that night. I immediately encountered problems again. The officer, B, said I should have got permission for the re-export from the Collector at the airport, as my orders from the other Collectors were not valid at the airport. B also said that I needed to get a gazetted officer to sign my letter of authority, without which he would not hand over my fax machine. When I asked where I might find such an officer this late at night, two hours before my friend was to leave, he said that was not his problem, and told me to go away.
Another officer said I should find the AC at the airport and get his signature on my papers. This I managed to do. This AC examined my papers and wrote on them that the re-export should be permitted, as my papers indicated. Amazingly, B did not accept this either, despite the AC's explicit instructions and signature on my documents -- the signature I had got to satisfy his own demand. B refused to phone the AC to verify that he had indeed issued the instructions.
By now, I was desperate, for my friend's flight was to leave in a short while and there was no sign that the fax machine would be handed over to her.
Finally, another officer there, R, intervened and asked me to bring my friend to see him after she had come through Immigration. I did this, and he released the fax machine to her.
I was grateful to R for his help, as also to the two ACs and the Collector.
But I was astonished and profoundly dismayed at how every other Customs Officer I met in connection with this case was interested only in hindering me, harrassing and bullying me, in the rudest possible way. Doing their job and helping me seemed the last thing of any interest to them. The behaviour of H and S, in particular, was simply unacceptable.
There's talk about India topping lists of corrupt nations (for example Transparency International's Bribe Payers Index). I can believe it.