Daijiworld Media Network - Mangaluru
Mangaluru, Apr 9: Mervin Vas, a Mangalurean, was recently in the news after customs officials in Bengaluru held back an imported wheelchair he had ordered online and asked him to pay Rs 4 lac as duty in order to release it. In Mervin's interest, daijiworld had decided not to highlight the incident after a special request from him, so as not to jeopardise his chances of getting the wheelchair released. However, April 1 brought him the good news that the customs had agreed to release his wheelchair without any charges. The battle was not easy, but due to efforts from a lot of people who helped him out, he finally won.
Here's Mervin's story and the ordeal he went through in his own words:
"'Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible" - Francis of Assisi.
Words of one of the greatest saint of Christianity keeps reminding me to fight the difficulties without giving up, never to surrender.
Twenty years back I was young, freshly out of college and full of energy. With stars in my eyes, lofty ideals to flaunt and an exciting future beckoning, everything looked rosy. But one fateful incident changed all that. Lying in ICU I heard two doctors whispering between themselves “he will not walk again”! Yes, I had just met a spinal injury which devastated my life, changing it forever. It was like several tsunamies, earthquakes hitting all at once.
Recovery was extremely painful, of course physically you’ll never come out of spinal injury. You are confined to bed and rely on wheelchair to move about. Which means you lose the most precious thing in this world - freedom. Always dependant upon family/friends, it is psychologically a massive, massive burden. Not to mention dozens of health related complications.
Many settle and compromise with the hard reality. I’m not one of them. For me self-respect is non-negotiable. One thing which is most dear to me is freedom. But my own back had betrayed me.
There had to be some way out. I had already gained financial freedom starting coaching classes within a year of accident, now I was looking for freedom from taking help from friends to move about. However, I must add something here. Though I’m unlucky enough to be 1 in 1,00,000 to suffer spinal injury, I wasn't that hopeless regarding friends. I've had great friends around me all the time. Rohith-Padil took care of me from the day one, and still does everything to keep me happy. Jerome Lobo-Angelore is another amazing person, who, despite his busy schedule makes time for me and comes every Sunday to assist me to sit in the wheelchair. From Jerome I learned a lot, to be patient and humble. There were others like Jones, Alwyn, and Sydney. But I always thirsted to move on my own. I did go out thanks to my uncle Mathew and cousins Malcom and Maklin.
Finally, I came across an interesting piece of machinery. Stair-climbing automatic wheelchair aptly named “top-chair”. Pheew, that's it. I couldn't ask for more. My hunt for a machine which would free me from relying on others finally did exist. But excitement soon turned sour - first it wasn't avaiilable anywhere in India as it was manufactured in France and worse, it was prohibitively expensive at over Rs 15 lac - more costlier than top end Ford Eco-Sport!
There was no way I could invest so much on a wheelchair, so I turned to my childhood friend Alwyn, with whom I grew up playing cricket (he still plays fantastic cricket). I asked him whether he could find a similar 'used' chair at lesser price which I could afford on my own. After a couple of months of hunt, Alwyn could not get one. There was no such thing anywhere. As my hopes dashed, I continued searching for alternatives but without progress. In a strange matter of twists, Alwyn had mentioned all this to his boss.
In January this year, Alwyn offered something I couldn't refuse. His boss wished to foot the entire cost of wheelchair! The wheelchair was now available for Rs 10 lac(Aus $ 20,000) from an Australian seller in Melbourne. But that was because the seller Codacare offered the whole package on hefty discount and also agreed to give free shipment (without all these it’d be far more expensive). The generosity of the person who made it possible was unbelievable. How could anyone be so outrageously generous! Giving Rs 10 lac just like that to a person whom you have never seen - that part still baffles me. But now my treasury had enough to buy my dream machine. I placed the order online. Meanwhile I also did my own research on 'how to import' complications, import duty, paper work related to the item on the internet (god bless the inventor of internet Berners Lee!).
Convinced, I asked seller Codacare to ship the product. It left the Aussie shore on February 23, reaching Singapore on February 26 and India on March 2, right at Bengaluru airport. The cargo company (TNT) informed me I was just two days away from having it!! Wow it was too good to be true. But a chain of events which followed, left me perplexed.
On March 3, I received an e-mail from TNT indicating they needed a few signed documents from me to get the wheelchair released. I sought an opinion on this from Asha D'Souza, a CA and one of the finest person I have met, who in turn put me in contact with Capt V F Pais, Mangaluru, and Chandru, who runs a Bengaluru-based custom agency 'Ocean Liners'. I also contacted a few more friends to find out the actual position with customs. Here Someshekar (Nandini hotel, Bengaluru) and Hameed-Shivbagh delivered me the ominous news - My wheelchair would attract as much as Rs 3. 5 lac as duty. The figure they got was informally from a custom official. It came like a huge bomb exploding right under me. By this time already two weeks had passed and I was now incurring daily demurrage charges too, which was according to customs website INR 5/kg per day. My wheelchair was weighing more than 200 kg. I was whacked both ends. It drove me crazy. What began as dream boat was now turning into a virtual nightmare.
Someshekar, Hameed and Chandru tried their best, met every official concerned and presented all my medical records, but nothing happened. I was repeatedly told there was no way I could get duty exemption. It was that same feeling 'so near yet so far'! At this time, the person who gifted this chair asks Louis Pinto to find a way. After a week of trying Pinto gives up. Now it is almost a month since the wheelchair came to Bengaluru. Just when all hopes were being crashed and I get ready to dole out my hard earned Rs 4 lac for releasing the wheelchair, just in the nick of time like a divine intervention, Jerome introduced his journalist friend Ronnie Fernandes, a highly respected chief of Deccan Herald, Mangaluru. Ronnie has very good reputation as head of Red Cross, Mangaluru, and he’s equally sympathetic to social causes. I am so glad I got a chance to meet him. Ronnie put an article highlighting problems I was facing from department of customs which was then republished in another Kannada daily. The article evoked nationwide response. I got calls from across the nation. Hundreds of them offered all sorts of help from finance to moral support.
I made it all clear to them that the aim of the article was not to collect funds but to highlight flaws in the system. The article wasn't aimed at customs officers per se, but at the strange rule and regulations. As the media report went viral I received a call from no less than the additional commissioner at customs Dr Harishkumar who offered me complete exemption of demurrage but declined to give any relief on duty, again citing rules. Well, my fight had resulted in something.
As I made arrangements for paying the presumed duty of Rs 3.5 lac, a stranger from Bengaluru called up saying he had read the article and said there was a way out to actually bring the wheelchair without paying any duty, and it was not hanky-panky business but strictly going by the book. That angel was Purushotham, working for Flyhigh Logistics, who promised to help me out. Wow, good samaritans do exist! And they come in all forms. Chandru and Purushotham worked frantically as April 1 was the last day before a flurry of holidays began.
At 4 pm on April 1, I was teaching maths to some of my 10th standard students, when Purushotham breaks the news I was yearning to hear for the last 30 odd days. My wheelchair was out of customs, ready to be loaded and I would get it in 24 hours! The best part? Well, it's a thriller - the customs generously waived off all the duty, all the demurrage, all the cess - in fact, they let it go without any charge! Unbelievable right? Yes it is true. After all, customs officers too have heart and it beats fine. I am hugely thankful to the kind gesture showed by the customs officers. Irony is, on April Fool's Day, I got the best possible news!!
On April 3 that is Good Friday, the chair is inside my room after a long and seemingly never-ending battle. Was it a mere coincidence or did it have any larger meaning to it, i don't know.
As the saying goes, 'all's well that ends well'. I have learned several lessons in all - a) there are thousands of extremely nice people who respond positively; b) when you fight a just battle, victory is always yours, but the path for victory is filled with every possible hurdle you cannot even imagine; c) always remain well informed, hope for the best but be prepared to swallow bitter experience; d) never ever forget the people who supported you, be civilized enough to thank them all.