October 17, 2006

Customs saga

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.


Anonymous said...

Simple but powerful. The feeling of helplessness in such situations is terrible, isn't it?

kuffir said...

so what do you think needs to be done?

Quizman said...

Ah, the lack of competition coupled with enormous power.

In 1993, I came back from the US after completing my MS, with visions of contributing back to society etc. [You know how foolish we are at 23!].

At the Sahar airport, I walked to the red channel in order to declare Transfer of Residence. I had 50 odd cassettes (mostly Indian classical, purchased from India) and a four year old casio keyboard (cheap synthesizer). A customs officer, whose name I can still recall (initials SSA), asked me point blank, "Dollars nahin laaya? Kuch fayde ka nahin hai tu". He made me wait from 12.30 to 3.30 a.m., opened all my suitcases, was terribly disappointed at not finding anything of value. I showed him the computer printouts of all the TOR laws which I had got from the San Francisco consulate. He promptly threw them away, saying that "Mujhe rules bataa rahe ho?". At 3.30 he finally got frustrated and asked me money again. I said I was a poor student and didn't have any. So he made a bill for $80 for the casio keyboard and asked me to pay customs duty at the SBI counter. I did pay with a traveller's cheque! (The casio keyboard thus cost me $50 + $80. :-))

I have never hated India as I did then. Not before, never since. I wanted to turn around and go back. However proud you are to be Indian while living overseas, and are so eager to get back home, the bureaucrats make certain that you are paid in full due for not circumventing laws. They make you regret for respecting the laws of the country. The more you try to obey laws, the more you are punished for doing so.

Ever try to get a drivers's license without paying a bribe? In Bangalore, most RTO offices keep Kannada forms. They sell the (free) English forms to local photostat shops. You can buy the English forms for Rs. 1/- (in the 1990s) from these shops. The shopkeeper pockets some and gives a commission to the mandarins at the RTO office. How creative can you get to be corrupt, eh? [Mind you, you then have to pay a counsellor for understanding what the forms say. Then you are failed twice in the driving test since you do not have an agent. The officers are very open about all this.]

These and other such incidents made me hate socialism and the license raj with a venom.

I recall a scene from Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron in which Naseer expresses anger at a cop by shouting about blowing them all off with a machine gun. I wonder how many of us have felt the same while navigating the corridors of govt offices.

[Large scale corruption is prevalent in the Indian private sector too, but it is lower due to some semblance of competition.]

Anonymous said...

Corruption aside, what an astounding amount of time, energy, creative elan, is wasted by the utter pettiness of the power-playing plods of the world. It is they in the end who rule the world--who slow its spin--and small, daily revolutionary acts that make it spin again in spite of them. And to think that matters of state and policy are decided to the rhythm of the same obstacles, only on a larger scale. It's your details that are so accurately dispiriting. Well done. (No wonder, incidentally, that Officer H has a hemorroidal ointment named after him.)

Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

I am amazed you didn't pay. I would paid the first day. I still pay on the first day.

At some level though, aren't you worried that this tyranny of "rule of law" is a peculiar obsession of the middle class? Clearly the salaries of the middle class and a vast fraction of the enforcing agents are not in balance. Then this "baksheesh" simply becomes an unofficial mechanism to bridge this disparity. Compared to India disparties manifest even in less egalitarian "North" societies like the US pale.

Anonymous said...

This is terrible, and sadly unsurprising. But where does the conscientious I-will-not-pay-a-bribe citizen go from here?
Why would you not want to mention the names of these guys in your posting? I understand the it's-not-about-the-individual-it's-the-system argument, but the individuals make up the system, and the individuals pointedly defy the rules. So when you protect them, you protect others like them and strengthen their belief that they are invincible. Such a pity...

Dilip D'Souza said...

Harry, good point. This is a story from several years ago, that's all -- and as I write this I realize that's no good reason either to hide their names. Let me think about this some more.

Anonymous said...

Ive been hassled myself at Customs but we regular business travelers (not ToR as in this case) are part of the problem:

1. When we bring in more than Rs.25000 (or whatever the limit) of stuff with us from these trips, we ARE violating customs regulations with impunity, we know a $20 will fix it.

---> Change should start from relaxing these limits or the majority of us getting in line with them?

2. There may be some obscure scribble in their law books about getting a gazetted officer to sign those papers; couldnt think of how else these guys rejected instructions from other customs officers.

---> Change should start from these rules?

3. In spite of the hassling experiences I have occasionally felt sympathy for our overworked airport staff at immigrations & customs- I see about 8X the personnel assigned to do the same jobs at airports abroad.

I dont condone the actions of these officers here in any way (just trying to "understand" them like I do with terrorists :-) )


Anonymous said...

quizman -- I have a story about a keyboard at Sahar, too, but quite different. It was 1997, I was a grad student in Bangalore and was returning from a trip to Italy. I had picked up a rather inexpensive keyboard (equivalent of about Rs 6000, five octaves, full-width keys, a decent piano mode), and of course the Bombay custom guys asked me what it was. I showed them, and also showed the receipt. They actually had a booklet that listed leviable duties on various makes and models of keyboard, but it did not contain this brand (no surprise - I have never heard of it before or since either). So they asked me "how much duty will you pay on it?" I said I don't know, you need to tell me. One guy, who figured out from my name that I was a Tamil speaker, asked me the same in Tamil, and I gave him the same answer. After about 2 minutes back-and-forth, they said "ok sir, no duties, go..." and I went.

When I moved back to India in 2004 from the US, I walked through the green channel in Chennai with two big backpacks, a truly enormous suitcase and a guitar. I faced no questions at all.

Driver licences -- I got mine in 1992 in Delhi. No bribes. In those days AAUI was authorised to conduct tests (a few years earlier they were even authorised to issue licences). I went to the RTO with my test results, came out with licence in minutes. More recently, in 2004 a friend of mine exchanged his Chicago licence for a Chennai one at an RTO here. They only wanted proof of address -- no bribes, no hassles.

In recent years I have faced very little trouble from Indian officials, and none from officials at the airport. In fact the last incident of harassment was by a Lufthansa check-in person who was upset that my wife was travelling to France a few days after me: the hotel reservation, visa, etc were not enough for him, he wanted an "invitation letter" (for a tourism trip?) and would not relent until she talked to a superior official. (We both found Lufthansa generally quite unpleasant and incompetent.) She too faced no problem at all from Indian government officials.

Corruption and harassment are still around, but these days they seem to be after bigger fish... us small fry are left alone.

gaddeswarup said...

This is the story from a friend Joshi (named after P.C. Joshi) more than 50 years ago. Joshi was selected for training for some railway job and midway the training turned to how to collect bribes. Joshi refused and was told that (almost?) everybody had a share in the system and even if he is prepared to loose money, he would be preventing many poor from collecting their normal share of the revenue. After the training, the village karnam had to sign a certificate and wrote in big red letters that Joshi was a communist ( which is still true: his father Mrityunjayudu was also a communist who was killed in 1948 during the Telangana struggle). Joshi did not get the job.

Anonymous said...

Corruption and harassment are still around, but these days they seem to be after bigger fish... us small fry are left alone.

This is hardly true unless your definition of "small fry" means "middle to upper middle class who can speak good English." Check, for instance, the website of Manushi which documents the efforts of that organisation to protect rickshaw pullers and street vendors from Municipal agencies. Manushi's website is at


Anonymous said...

Anonymous - you're right of course. And I knew that. Just didn't occur to me when I was typing this.

It is another example of the evils of the license-permit raj, from which the middle class are somewhat emancipated but the poor are not. If we could just let these people ply their honest trade, we'd all be better off And the so-called left parties just refuse to see this. All their protectionism benefits less than 0.1% of the population (namely, government and PSU employees).

wise donkey said...

corruption exists, not just because of officers like this, but because, people give up immediately after coming across officers like this. i dont think many would have had ur persistence

i think there is another myth that the private sector would be better, i think people dont become different just because they work for different organisations, but perhaps the pub.sect. gives them more control and people hesitate to question them more..

Dilip D'Souza said...

Kuffir, in this case what I think needs to be done is remove the entire duty regime; certainly leave no discretionary powers in this regard to individual customs officers. We're heading in that direction, and I've not had any issues with Customs the last few times I've come through. Here it was the fact that I had this fax machine that fixed me.

Quizman, I've got a drivers' license -- not once, but thrice that I recall -- without paying a bribe. There are shitty things going on and crappy officials everywhere, but if you're willing to be persistent, you can get things done without getting into bribes (what wise donkey said).

Suvendra, it is an obsession of the middle class! And in two ways: one set who want to see the rule of law followed, and another set who know they can get by without it. There is a level at which the rule of law simply does not apply and people know it, so they sort of work their lives around it.

Pierre, interesting thought about that creative energy. Yes, the lengths to which some of these guys went to put obstacles in my path -- surely it would have been easier all around if they had simply let me have what I wanted. But perhaps I had to be punished for not being willing to pay a bribe.

Jai, change does indeed need to come from relaxing those rules and limits. I always feel corruption is best tackled by creative framing of and use of laws. You take away those limits, you remove one more thing the guy can get you on. With some amount of thought, I'm sure this can be seen through.

Anonymous 1:25, you're right about Manushi and their efforts. Shah and Mandava's book from last year also documents the crazy rules that seem to exist only to hassle the small trader or vendor: example, limits on the spacing of icecream vendors. What possible use could this be except as a tool to extract money from them? Those who suffer most from the corruption in this country are the truly small fry among us.

Sidhusaaheb said...

Not only do most people not believe in not paying bribes, but they will also tell you how foolish you are for having wasted so much time and energy.

The typical reaction is, "Arey bewakoof, paise de dene thhe na...Kaam jaldi ho jaata!"

("You fool, you should have paid up...You would have got the work done much earlier!")

Anonymous said...

Quizman, Why didn't you just let him keep the keyboard? I would have said the keyboard is yours.

Quizman said...


True, but one needs enormous time and workplace flexibility. I took leave for three separate days from work when I had to go there time and again after failed tests and so on. "Naale banni" (come tomorrow) is a standard tool as you yourself experienced. Finally, I caved in by joining a driving school and taking the driving test through them. The driving schools fees cover the portion of bribes they pay to RTO folks. Some of these schools are run by former RTO chaps. Its all very streamlined. Unless your boss is accomodating enough to give you many days off, this is the choice we end up making.

I had a cousin who filed complaint after complaint against an RTO officer, but got nowhere after two long years. He gave up too. :-(

I agree with wise donkey that private sector corruption also exists. [Heard of stories of how catering contracts are given to IT company messes? or how stationary purchases are made? How travel agents are chosen since the travel expenditures are so high in IT firms?] Trust me, there is a whole slew of creative corruption even when no opportunities exist vis-a-vis monopolies. Once again, it is the namby pamby small businessman who gets shafted. Therefore, I disagree with libertarians that once the govt gets out of the way, everything will be hunky dory vis-a-vis corruption.

Based on this, we then get into the hazy realm of "culture" and "attitudes". Are South Asians and East Asians inherently an ordr of magnitude more corrupt than the west? Not really. I'm a free-market cheerleader. But, laws and institutions must be easily accessible and function well in order for corruption to reduce. Hernando De Soto says this rather eloquently.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Neela, could be, but in practice it is just one more vehicle for extortion. There are other nutty rules about icecream vendors too.

Why was I importing a fax machine? Well, at the time it was simply one of the things I owned! I foolishly didn't realize it would attract heavy duty. It was cheaper to send it back.

Anonymous said...

When logistics people quoted abnormally high price for shipping my at least 2+ year old household stuff via Mumbai port, I thought they were trying to swindle me. The quotes were simply thus:

- Pickup and transport from Malaysia to India about RM1000.
- Transport and delivery from Mumbai port to my hometown about another RM1000.
- Clearing customs a whopping RM6000!

Anyway, I just dumped the idea of paying twice the amount for the stuff I could otherwise buy brand new, and routed my stuff via the port of Chennai. It cost me a total of RM2000 for all of the above and delivered home in Northern Karnataka. (The stuff reached India even before I left MY., and guys even helped my parents unpack.)

Lesson learnt. Surface transport is definitely cheap. Ditch Mumbai port, opt for another and get your logistics carrier to transport all your stuff home by road.

Anonymous said...

This is a one sided version that you have portrayed. If the Custom Officer had to blog his experience, what would he write over here?

I have never experienced harrasment by a customs official in India and find it objectionable when people keep complaining about customs officers. Yes they are not clean, but they are not bad either. With the increase in dutiable items limit (Rs 25000), the customs official post at the airport is almost irrelevant unless the passenger chooses to go over this limit. One cannot hold a customs official responsible for creating difficulties when enforcing customs rules.

I have taken a transfer of residence a couple of times in the last 10 years and imported most household goods. Though it was not a pleasant experience, I decide to stick to planned procedure and exited the cargo complex happy. Even my cargo agent was unhappy with my decision to pay duty to Govt of India rather than pay the same to customs officers and him. These parties are hand in glove and look to extract maximum if you don't know the baggage rules.
If you know the rules, they will not make you pay more than the official computed duty, but they will be creative in trying to siphon off money to themselves.