Mangalore, Jul 22 : For the last few days, problems faced by international passengers at Mangalore airport has been one of the hot topics for discussion on daijiworld, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, and among people in the coastal region and in the Gulf countries.
As the issue gets hotter, many people even though not connected to NRIs have realised the injustice faced by the passengers due to an outdated government law. Now a mainstream print media has also taken up the issue, and justice to NRIs seems to be on the horizon.
While discussions were still at the primary level, I had the opportunity to travel from Dubai along with my family on July 20, landing in Mangalore early morning. But the experience was quite new, where I learnt lots of things and got an opportunity to talk with the customs officers as well as passengers who landed from Dubai and Kuwait within few minutes of each other.
When I arrived at the immigration counter, the officer who is known to me welcomed me with a smile. "What sir, your customs issue has become the talk of the town. Several people called me from the Gulf to enquire whether such problems were really there...and many people in the immigration line have been discussing the same issue," the officer told me.
"Yes sir, people are facing problems. What's your opinion about this?" I asked.
"You know I cannot comment..." he said with a smile.
Now I was a bit hesitant to face the customs officers, as I always find a couple of officers known to me. As expected, I was welcomed in a different tune !
I was accused of publishing a one-sided story, blaming only customs officials and projecting passengers as saints !
"No sir, that was not our intention. Before publishing we studied the matter, but over the last couple of weeks we have been flooded with a number of complaints. If at all our intention was to blame you, we would have published such stories long back...I have been travelling frequently here ever since the international flight operations began in 2006," I said.
"But why was our version not taken ?"
"We contacted one of your assistant commissioners, but he refused to talk to us officially as he does not have the authority. He directed us to meet D Purushotham, the commissioner of customs in Mangalore, but he was not ready to talk to us, and only provided us a 100-page rule book. Our intention was to get the other side of the story from the commissioner but he refused to cooperate...now tell me, how can we be blamed ?" I maintained.
"But before publishing the article, you should have examined the rules..."
"Sir, rules are there since 1960s...but never before were passengers at Mangalore airport 'harassed' so badly. How is it that all of sudden you are implementing this now ?"
"This issue you should take up with the central government, we are helpless and only go according to the rules..." he replied and walked back to his duty.
Even the next officer I spoke to shared a similar feeling, "Walter, we are sad that people bashed us with words like dogs, pigs, and all the animals in the world. Do we deserve this ?"
"Sir, people bashed because they must have been so badly hurt. But upright officers like you need not worry, sir. Only those who do wrong must have caused problems, but surely people have not bashed everyone. They are angry with only those who harass and indulge in corruption," I tried to pacify him.
"It's not an easy job. Checking and verification is our duty. But passengers must cooperate as we are only doing our job. A few days back, a lady who carried about 600 grams gold tried to walk through the green channel. Tell me, is that justified ? When we questioned her, she tried to create a scene here, and accused us of being corrupt. If the same woman is caught outside by the DRI people (sometimes they come for random checking) we will be thrown out from here without any inquiry! Who will understand our problem?"
He does have a genuine problem. Many a time we carry goods beyond the permissible limit and argue with the customs expecting to be let scotfree. Sometimes we want everything for free.
"We understand your situation, sir. Our fight is not for such people. Those who carry goods beyond the limit must be treated according to law. But look at the complaints, many innocents were harassed here..."
"No, we do not buy all those complaints... people may speak of incidents since 2006, we do not know. Officers keep changing here. Also, people complain that we impose tax on jewellery worn on the body. We have never done that. It is not true. A couple of days back a lady came in wearing loads of jewellery, some with brand new tags! Still we were considerate towards her...we don't understand why people are making such allegations," he said.
The body language of the customs officers clearly indicated that they were hurt by the people's accusations.
What surprised me during my almost 90 minutes of presence there was that no passenger was harassed, there were hardly any arguments (otherwise a usual scene), people were questioned quite politely with smiling faces, and none of the passengers faced any problem.
Is this an everyday story ? Or is there a tremendous improvement in their service ? Personally, I have rarely seen such friendly environment there.
I also had the opportunity to meet passengers from Kuwait as well as Dubai. Many of them heaved a big sigh of relief when they came out of the customs. "Lot of talk has been going on, and we were scared to enter the customs. We had to leave some of our gold back in Kuwait as we heard many stories of harassment here in the name of export certificate," said a lady passenger who came with her two kids and husband.
None of the passengers were asked for export certificate.
All that I have narrated is my personal experience, and not the official statement from the customs. To alleviate the fear of thousands of NRIs there is need for an official announcement of rules from the officers in Mangalore. A 100-page rule book does not convey everything. Beware, with this rule book, they have the ticket to harass you any time.
Fight will continue ..
The fight against Mangalore Airport customs will continue until we get to know the official announcement on new rules. There is a strong need for consistency on the part of the officials who should punish only the culprits, and not the innocents in the name of 'export certificate'.
On the other hand, there is also a need for change in the Customs Act 1967 which allows only Rs 10,000 worth gold jewellery for a man and Rs 20,000 for a woman. We are in 2012, and the value of gold has not remained the same as in 1967. Mangalore customs officials are very well aware of this and agree on this point, but they say that they are helpless. People need to put pressure on the central government to amend the Act, they say.
We are taking up this issue through the two MPs from the coastal belt, and also with ministers from state. At the same time, organizations in the Gulf must take active interest and make a concerted effort in this regard. Every association must write to the Prime Minister (who holds the finance ministry) and request him to amend the bill immediately so that NRIs can have hassle-free passage.
J P Hegde's Assurance :
Mangalore MP Nalin Kumar Kateel has extended full co-operation in this regard. He is expected to speak to top customs officials directly.
On the other hand, speaking to Daijiworld, J P Hegde, Udupi - Chikmagalur MP has promised to take up the issue in the parliament. He was surprised about the attitude of the customs commissioner. He assured that he too will talk to him soon.
We the people of this region expect both leaders to forget party politics and work together to get justice for NRIs.
Airport director writes to customs
M R Vasudeva, Mangalore Airport director has gone through the readers' comments on daijiworld, and immediately written a letter to the customs commissioner. He has addressed the genuine issues faced by the people at the airport.
Several readers of daijworld have come up with complaints but without proof. It is not easy to have documentary proof.
Several readers have sent the daijiworld writeup to officials in New Delhi and Bangalore, and have got replies asking for evidence.
S Chandrasekaran, deputy commissioner (vig), directorate of vigilance, customs and central excise, south zone unit, Chennai, has advised all complainants to address the issue to the customs commissioner of Mangalore, but we wrote to him saying that we do not have confidence in D Purushotham as he is not interested in solving the problem, or even listening to the problems. He believes only in the rule book!
Request to readers
Since July 15, 2012, if anyone faces or has faced problems like harassment and demand for bribe, etc, please note down the name of the officer (displayed on their badge), explain the entire incident in detail, provide your flight details, time, date, your email id, and your telephone numbers in both India as well as the country of residence and send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We will take up the complaints with higher officers of customs. If we DO NOT receive feedback then we will publish the content along with the name of the custom officer responsible.
But please keep in mind that we can do this only when you are right !
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