Sunday, September 9

Custom torture :-)

Recently had a very 'memorable' experience with Indian customs, which I was planning to blog about. This was my first firsthand experience with public corruption & bureaucracy, hence quite a learning experience.
So this happened, when on my India trip, I naively carried two laptops (one for a friend & one for my work, as I needed both) without thinking twice about the custom trouble it might create :-) I was vaguely aware of 25000Rs limit, was foolishly optimistic of my falling below the custom radar or overly confident of dealing with any eventuality. Alas, on my way out of Mumbai terminal, when asked forthright, I declared the same, and was promptly asked to come to side & open my luggage.

The officer, Mr.B was way too good for his job. The free & black market prices of all electronic valuables & accessories were on his fingertips. His knowledge of dell, hp, toshiba, ibm brands alongwith innards of chipsets, ram, dvd specs would compete with authorized salepeople. He asked me net value of my hp laptop. 25000Rs. I underquoted, since I knew that was the limit I could carry without duty. Obviously aware of my insincerity, trying to keep straight face, he started inquiring about configuration, and adding up costs on a piece of paper. So much for ram, so much for chipset... there is no way your laptop costs less than so much. Humbled by his encyclopedic knowledge & authority, I figured the best way for me was to come out clean. I told him, "you are absolutely right, officer. Pardon for underquoting(lying about) the price. It costed me 850$(34000Rs), i do not have receipt. I am carrying laptop for friend, if needed, I am ready to pay duty, as I have crossed the legal limit"

Accustomed to rather lengthier theatricals, he was rather surprised at my naivette, and he said, "I am glad you admitted your mistake. I am taking your word for the price, though I believe it is much higher. Now wait a while till I come back." Thus he made clear, he was making me a favor, and probably expected favor in return. He came back after 10 min, started making rough calculations, asked me to open my luggage, where he found camera lenses I was carrying for a friend, for which I had no receipts as well. He called over an officer, Mr.C, expert in Camera lens pricing. After asking all specs, he quoted a price. (which I suspect was at least 50% higher). He also mentioned that 25000Rs. exception can not include laptop, as government already allows one free laptop. (which I later found out was an outright lie) I was now really scared. Because, customs duty is draconian (33%), which I was not aware of until then.. So started adding value of nonexempt goods I was carrying. After tax, the duty was about 9000Rs. That too after, believing my word on laptop price. Thus he scared me about the consequences of 'following the law', which is first step in corruption. never mind if he had twisted the law/ exploited my ignorance of it/ overhyped the gravity of my mistake.

Then he asked me how much can I pay. I said, right now I don't have any money on me. This upset him, "where do you stay, can you contact your parents? anybody in Bombay? any friends? Go ahead, if you want, use my cellphone." He emphasized consequences of not paying duty immediately. your lugguage will be sealed, its 'proper' value stamped on it along with duty, you will get it back when you come & pay duty. I might not be there to 'help' you, then." I told him, "my parents are going to be outside to see me, but since my flight was preponed, it will still be an hour before they come here. So they are not home, I don't have my father's cellphone, so I can not contact them." Just when I remembered, somewhere deep inside the luggage, I had a 100$ bill stored away for such emergencies, almost 3 years back. I told Mr.B about it, and cheer returned to his face. Unsure of next course, I was kind of hoping, he would let me get away by paying just 100$=4000Rs, almost half the duty. He almost seemed to.. he worked the numbers again, lowered his valuations, overlooked certain items, to bring figure down to Rs.4500. He said, he can take the money, and with a straight face he said, but he wont be able to give any receipt for it. This was when, I 'realized' that this money would go in his pockets, and I was engaging in corruption. My immediate reaction, was of impulsive revolt, without heeding the 'practical' voice that this was an easy way out. With a nervous helplessness, I said "No officer, I have to have receipt. I just cant give money w/o receipt. I am so sorry. If needed I will pay the whole duty, if not today, then sometime this week." He sensed my insanity, and said, "Its time for my break, I have to be gone for 10 min. Think about it. What will you take, tea/coffee? I will send it here."

Waiting there, with hawkish constable watching over my luggage, I glanced around. On wall, were signs that gave warning to passengers. "All payments have to be made against receipt in SBI branch located nearby. If you have any grievances about custom procedures/ harassment complaints, contact the chief custom officer in white uniform." This was to prevent the widespread harrassment which used to happen earlier at Mumbai customs, which received widespread media publicity, forcing officials to make changes like this. That was when the cap on exempt luggage was raised from 1000 to 25000, and one personal laptop was made duty free, which stopped torture most people underwent through. But for people like me, falling outside that bracket, Indian customs was going to make sure I pay without receipt. Their aim was to minimize harrassment to a level where corruption would thrive without public/media outcry, not to eliminate corruption.

Tea came, and so did Mr.B, along with his seniors Mr.D & E. Mr.D who was native Maharastrian, said, "B told me about your case. Usually I am very busy. But I heard your surname, and I came to see how I can help marathi friend." He in his friendly glibness tried to convince me all virtues of taking the easy way out. "We are here to help you... compare how much you need to pay with/without receipt. How much time will be wasted, getting extra money, going to pune, coming back. your friend might be upset, he maynot reimburse you for the extra customs duty, and so on" I said, my friend will, as I know him well, and he will respect my decision. He even offered me to take his cellphone & call my friend, which I declined, citing memory loss :-)" This was when I realized, that this is a collective initiative. Everybody has his cut in the bribe predetermined. I said, with sheepish grin, walking tightrope between stubbornness & not giving offense, " Officer, call me madman. But I just cant give money without receipt. Treat it as my personal illness, but please give me another way out." Finally, he threatened.. "we don't have all all time in the world. Next flight will be here in 10 min. When it comes, I wont have time for you. (I will have new bakras to milk :-), so better decide and act fast. If you want it with/without receipt your choice. We are not forcing...". I realized my time was running out. I did not have enough money to pay full bloated duty, but enough to pay bribe.

Almost ready to give in, I decided to give my luck last chance. "Can I visit my family, which might be outside, and see if they have some money?".. sure, he said, and gave me a pass to return inside, and let me go. I went outside, and found my parents waiting. I briefly stooped to touch their feet, and asked them for money :-) How much do you need? Give as much as you can, I said. Luckily, Mom had 3000Rs. I took them, and returned inside customs. I told about to Mr.B. He angrily refused... "No way, I can get you away with paying just 3000Rs duty and give receipt." I clarified that, I meant to pay 3000RS +100$=7000Rs, and that was the maximum I could muster up in short term. He was surprised... He realized that, I sincerely meant to pay amount of duty he stated, and was not playing/ faking honesty to go scot free. All games were off. He realized, there was no use persuading me, as I was insanely insistent on paying duty, none of which would go in his pockets. He had less time to go through paperwork of paying duty, as new airlines had arrived, and people were lining up the xray booth, all potential bakras. He asked me to wait.. He will be back.

After almost 30 min, he came back. Realizing, my patience was running out, and I might be troublesome if I tell about such harassment to people, he decided to appease me. He worked numbers again. "So Mr.Deshpande, How much money do want to pour down the government?" "As less as I can, without breaking the law", I said. He smiled.. He accounted the new laptop cost, within 25000Rs exemption, (which was the correct way), and duty came down. He adjusted here & there, to make it 4000Rs. He made sure, I understood he was doing me a favor. "You are lucky Mr.Deshpande, to get officers like me". I agreed. I took the valuation, went to bank, deposited money, took the receipt, went back. The receipt had to be signed by chief customs officer, standing by turnstiles. Myself & Mr.B walked over, and I showed the receipt. he carefully looked at it, and frowned (as I was probably first person in many weeks to pay the duty). Just as he was about to object to something, Mr.B gestured, and said something in soft voice. He signed the receipt, and I was good to go almost 2 hours after I arrived at Mumbai :-)

On my way out, everybody constables, doorsmen was giving me strange glances, when I showed them receipts for passage of luggage. It probably was a rare event. I was glad it was over, and without my having to pay bribe.

Lengthy post... but lessons to learn are.
Corruption will not go away. It is there for a reason, because rules are stringent, people cross the rules, and want an easy way out. But if you want to, it is possible to go through customs without paying bribes. Know the rules. Stay within legal limit. Take receipts. Laptop can count in the 25000Rs exemption. 33% duty is levied on everything above 25000Rs. They will try to scare you, by using your ignorance of rules, leeway they have in making valuations and their ability to keep you waiting. Don't let them. Customs are scared of media/ public outcry too. Be sincere, be assertive & refuse to play games.


Parul Gupta said...

exemplary behavior ameet! knowing the rules indeed is the key in such situations. am really glad you posted about the whole incident .. it will imbue hope and courage in people to follow and know its possible

Goli said...

I absolutely love your post... and that is the point that I was making on NGO post as well....In India people are more keen to pay bribes and get away faster.

But I guess the more people take up the fight as you have taken, and started paying proper duties, and stop giving bribes. That is a better solution to corruption.

Know the rules, yups correct, and also I guess use RTI, very effective tool that is.

Ameet said...

Hi Goli!
Thanks for you appreciation... but people paying proper duties on their own, is very difficult, and probably impossible. In that situation, temptation to take easy way out is very high & natural. In my case, I had stigma about bribing, so I did not do it.. But proper solution to this problem is top down :-)

anish said...

really amit - this incident gives a lot of hope. you showed courage and patience to go through all that without compromising on what you felt was right. cheers!

Anonymous said...

Really impressive ... to see that u didn't bend down. Every body has to stand upfront and say no to corruption. Together we can and we will make India a corruption free country :)

Enigma said...

I have often taken pride in fooling these customs people. Learnt the tricks of trade by experience so never got caught. At blr airport they put a cross with a white chalk on suspected luggage. U can always the extra laptop in the check in baggage and wipe out the chalk mark with a wet tissue! ;)

Why wud I do that? Simple I carry a latop from office and I get a letter for the same. They say it is insufficient on return so I ask what's the procedure - he sez u need a letter from customs stating u are carrying a laptop out of ur country so that on the way back u can carry an extra laptop. But I need to pay bribe to get this letter itself. The situation is sad. I defer the bribe till I get back and see I can fool them!!! I have so far always managed but if I get caught I think troubling them wud be a good idea.

Good going Ameet. Please publish on NP and will share! :)

Suresh said...

hats off.........!!!

jeyma said...

Lucid and interesting writing style.... a very practical real life situation which has taught me many things than any book or lecture on corruption or legislation could do....sharing such incidents and elaborating on the possible uncompromising course of action during such conflicting situations, gives strength to people who want to follow the path of righteousness and show integrity.

Prashant Murty said...

Hello Ameet,

Just to be real quick - I ordered a lens on eBay recently and paid 20000 INR through paypal (it was a used lens and was being sold by a shopkeeper in the US). The market Value of the item is around 30k INR.

So, will there be any Customs/Import duty on it ?? If yes, how can get "out" of the situation in an easy way (kindly tell me the exact rules in layman terms since this is my first purchase and I dont know anything how these things go.)

Also, how does Mumbai Customs behave in case of Imported items like mine and how do charge for it ??

I am really scared right now knowing (imagining) the consequences of all that is possible. I currently reside in Bhopal. And I may have to come to Mumbai to collect the item. Plus, will they handover the item to me at the airport itself or will they re-post the baggage to the address it was shipped to ?? The latter will CERTAINLY damage the lenses - I dont have any faith in the Post Office people. :-(

I feel like I made a terrible mistake !!!

And kudos to you for not paying the bribe and standing by the rules. You certainly did a great job.
Plzz Help Me out. I would be really really thankful to you.

Prashant Murty