Paperless Documentation Will End Corruption – Customs Director General

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 26 2020
Interviews Paperless Documentation Will End Corruption – Customs Director General

Retired Major General G. V. Ravipriya who was appointed as the Director-General Sri Lanka Customs, is gearing to bring about a vast change in his institution namely,  paperless documentation by end October, and to end corruption where Customs officers are involved. Recently, Customs Preventive Division also filed a case against him over releasing a suspect cargo to the importer where the Rtd Major General is now dealing with.

I have to sort out many of the illegal practices taking place in the Customs, he added. He also pointed out while the new Government wants the people to engage in boosting domestic produce and exports rather than imports, he is making sure that the Customs Marine Division will regain the power to engage in sea raids that came to a halt when the separatist war broke out. “I have ordered two vessels for sea raids and sent 10 officers to train in shooting initially, to get them the arms and ammunition they needed for sea raids and apprehend smugglers that could add to our revenue,” he told Ceylon Today. 

Excerpts:

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan

A Major General of the Sri Lanka Army is now the DG Customs dealing with several corruption charges at the institution and attending to trade-related matters. Does this job suit you?

A: I was not restricted only to the military. I was the defence attaché of the Sri Lankan mission in the United States. I was also the commander of President’s guard and at all these points I had to work with civilians. As a defence attaché, I had to work with fellow Sri Lankan diplomats and persons in many other institutions in those countries where I had worked. So I have no problems in dealing with civilians.  

As soon as I joined the Customs, I removed my ranks and the uniform which was mine for over 35 years. I never considered myself as a military person after my retirement and I approach people as a civilian. When I was appointed as the Director-General there was some apprehension from the Customs Unions and I was not angry about it.  Some get alerted when a military man is appointed and could wonder what he is going to do here. There were petitions about my appointment and some met the bureaucrats to prevent me from coming here. I wanted to meet all of them before my appointment and the union agreed. I had no intention to come here but I was asked to come by the President of the country and I cannot refuse the offer I said. I have no burden and had no intention for a new job. My children are married and my pension is enough for me to run my life. After disclosing who I am, they accepted me.

However, there is a case filed against you at the Supreme Court by the Customs Preventive Division last month that you have released four containers that have been detained by the Customs Preventive Division claiming that those containers were declared as spare parts but the importer has got down completely dismantled 14 new vehicles worth Rs. 44 million. These vehicles could be assembled in Sri Lanka and sold. The claim is also that the importer has been in the habit of continuing to ignore Sri Lankan law and assembling and selling series of brand new vehicles in the country and many Customs officials have been aiding him to remove his cargo in the past. Why did you give permission to remove it while there are several legal battles the preventive division is handling with the importer?

A: There are several legal cases that the Customs is dealing but dragged it for years and this particular importer’s case is also is one such.  I am an alien to this place and I don’t know who are the importers and the exporters and it’s the Customs officers who deal with them are the ones who know. The Customs duty is to facilitate the cargo. They should not take revenge from others and drag the matter that comes under their purview. I had to sort this out. I studied the case and found out it is not easy to sort out.  The importer and the Customs officers were not in good terms. 

They accused that importer that he landed one of their officers in trouble.  The importer in return was accusing the Customs officers.  I called all the parties and to sort it out amicably. 

I said if there is a penalty, fine him and punish him. They are tarnishing the image of the Customs. I consulted the person who detained the consignment and also the other Customs officials and the legal branch and found out 99% of the importer’s consignments have been released in the past on condition. The importer said some valid items kept for too long and get lost. The Customs should pay for it.  He is asking who is going to take responsibility for it.  Our yards are not secured. Some have smuggled out stuff including turmeric. Robbing goods from our yard is happening for decades. My question is if we cannot detain turmeric that was smuggled, how can we protect expensive vehicles in the yard? When I asked the Preventive Division can you protect his consignments that are detained they were silent. So, what else can I do? I have only issued the permit to take it out but those containers are still there for a year or so now and no investigation has been conducted so far.

We hear that the Preventive Division wants the importer to pay demurrage and clear it as well?

A: Yes. The demurrage is Rs. 17 million for the four containers and I don’t think the exporter is willing to pay that.

What is the legality involved in this matter?

A: If the container is detained the investigation should start immediately knowing the fact there is demurrage. I have told them to start the investigation immediately to determine the facts. Without investigation how can we decide this thing? On the case against me, I had to consult the Solicitor General and I narrated the whole incident.  They were clear why I did so. This is someone else’s burden. We are in the process of informing the Attorney General’s Department to obtain more time to sort out this issue.  

The first challenge was the pandemic that hit work in the Customs. How did you streamline it?

We are trained to face challenges and it was not a problem at all. Workers were reluctant to return to duty during the peak of the pandemic in March this year and my job was to motivate them. They realised that they have to work to release essential cargo to the public. I used 1/3 of the number of officials and managed.  We halted exports and concentrated only on imports. I could keep the Customs working from day one when the pandemic hit our country on 16 March 2020. All the workers have now returned to work.

The Preventive Investigation Branch of the Marine Division of the Customs who have the power to engage in sea raids under the Customs Ordinance is not engaging in that activity since the separatist war broke out in the country. Sea raids are still conducted by the Sri Lanka Navy. Customs officers don’t have the boats and necessary equipment for sea raids.  Also, the jetty is handed over to a private company since they don’t have boats. When will you sort out this issue?

A: The Marine Division under the Preventive Directorate handed over the Port to the Navy and with that, the Marine Division saw its end. Since then, up until now it is not functioning. The officers have no weapons and some are under lock and key. When I was appointed, I found out the plight of the Marine Division.  As of now, the Police and the Navy go on sea raids and detain and hand over suspects to Customs officials.  I have ordered two hi-tech boats manufactured by the Sri Lanka Navy with specifications.  Before my appointment, there was a vessel order placed for Rs 240 million. We later decided to opt for two local boats for the same price. Before obtaining the weapons for the officers they need to be trained in firing while raiding. I got the approval from the Secretary Defence to train our preventive marine officers. Ten of them received training two weeks ago at Katukurunda. They were trained by the STF. I will be sending more for such training.

Will the preventive officers be assisted by the Navy in the future?

A: No. it would only be the preventive officers of the Marine Division. Also, when it comes to civil law it’s preferable to have a back-up team of Police Constables to protect our Customs officers during sea raids.  

It’s common knowledge that Customs officers and Customs-related corruption are in plenty.  How are you dealing with corruption in your backyard?

A: You may have heard the news about some officers who were recently taken into custody for releasing illegal turmeric importation. It was an organised offence. Some of the suspects were clerks who were engaged with Customs officials.   

How many fraud cases related to Customs are you probing?

A: I am dealing with many cases and taking drastic action against them.

The Government wants to promote domestic products to limit imports. If that is the Government’s view, then there must be a plan to expedite exports. What are your thoughts?

A: As a Board Agency, our task is on three pillars that is enforcement, social protection and collection of duty for goods brought into the country. If the policies are formulated and we are informed, we will have to adhere to it. The country had a closed economy until 1977 and then the open economy was introduced. With that people became dependent on importation rather than self-supplying. Our 25 districts have all the resources and capabilities to promote local goods. We could not concentrate on this as a result we remain poor and face the consequences. Promoting domestic income is a welcome sign.   With the pandemic Tourism and Middle East migrant workers’ income has come to a halt and we have no foreign direct investments. Now, the poor farmers have given the confidence to produce goods and food items. Turmeric, ginger, cloves, pepper etc will be in the market soon.

Why is there a dearth in turmeric in the country? Isn’t it an essential item?

A: The Government has urged farmers to engage in turmeric cultivation fast. By end December, the turmeric harvest will begin and we will have enough of it in the local markets.  

Until we have our local turmeric in the market shouldn’t we import? Turmeric is being smuggled too?

A: Turmeric was not cultivated for a long time in Sri Lanka. We have introduced that project but farmers are reluctant to start believing that there will be importation of turmeric. To produce turmeric it would take eight months and that confidence cannot be lost at this moment. We have apprehended those illegal turmeric importers and stopped importing turmeric too.

If domestic products are promoted the Customs will lose import duties. How will you deal with that? 

A: The main duty for the Customs is to collect duty and that is our main revenue. Already there is a drastic drop in collecting duty and we are unable to contribute to the State coffers but we are preserving our currency from flowing out. This may also encourage exporters and 24 hours our offices are open and are contactable, and all facilities are available. We collect less duty compared to other CESS. We export fruits, vegetables and flowers by air now. Gems are carried by gem dealers and that has come to a halt since the airport is closed. We banned readymade garments importation initially but we have decided to allow imported clothes as people must be able to buy clothes they prefer and I think we should not impose restrictions on it, so we relaxed the ban on imported clothes.   

Do you have plans to make the Customs paperless and create an investor-friendly climate?

A: We need to reduce the time factor. To release one container from the container yard it takes nearly five to six hours and it’s hectic. If it is in a high-risk container yard, it can take up to a whole day.  We need that technology to examine goods to quicken the process. There is a scanner machine procured by the former Government from the US. It was hired for a monthly rental from a company.

How many scanners?

A: Only one Not six?

A: We have four which are old and out of the four only two are operating.

Those machines were also taken on a rent basis and are we paying the rental even though we are not using them?

A: Those were purchased. But, the new scanner machine can reduce the time. Going paperless could reduce human intervention and is the way forward. But in Sri Lanka, we like a human intervention. The Wharf Clerk is the messenger and to prevent him coming into the Customs we need paperless work. We introduced this during the COVID-19 peak days. We went paperless and at that time everybody embraced it but now they don’t like it. We are nevertheless going to make it paperless Customs operations very soon and the World Customs Organisation has also urged everybody to follow that process.

When will it be introduced?

A: By October 2020 Sri Lanka Customs will go paperless. We will introduce it in phases. First it will be the export section and then to the import. Finally the air cargo section will go paperless.

There are concessionary and conditional import permits for Government servants and Members of Parliament. Are you going to increase or reduce taxes?

A: We have stopped import permits for vehicles. Some Government officials have imported several vehicles and they are under investigation.

How many vehicles have been detained?

A: About 26 vehicles and they are Mercedes-Benz and Defenders.

Are the owners local politicians?

A: They are professionals from the Government sector.

Why are you investigating those imports?

A: They were not supposed to import at a time when the Government imposed the ban on vehicle permits. We doubted the loading date of the vehicles to the ship. They had loaded it to the ship when the special Gazette Notification was published banning vehicle permits from a particular day onwards. Just before the Gazette Notification the vehicle was purchased which was quite strange to us, hence we are investigating.

What is the tax revenue Sri Lanka Customs acquired in 2019 and the first half of 2020?

A: The 2019 tax revenue was close to the earning we made in 2018. In 2018 it was Rs 919.05 billion and we see a drastic drop for 2020 due to the prevailing pandemic. 

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By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 26 2020

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