For a very long time, it was not at all a pleasant experience to go through the Customs check at International airports in India. They used to check everything that you brought back from your overseas trip, and fined people who did not declare taxable goods.
This changed a few years ago, probably from 2005 onwards, when the Customs Department took a more relaxed approach. They waved off people with a single piece of baggage without any checks. Of course, 90% of the passengers were still asked to put their baggage through X-ray machines before exiting the airport, and some officer was checking each and every piece of baggage on the X-ray monitor. But some folks who appeared to be business professionals with a single piece of baggage could just walk out.
All this was fine, if that is what the country wants to do, so be it. In any case, none of the international airports in India are “free” ports like a Hong Kong or a Singapore. So, there is always a “green” channel for passengers who have nothing to declare to Customs, and a “red” channel for passengers who have something to declare. The idea behind this arrangement was trust.
I am sure millions of folks might have misused this trust based arrangement, but some would have followed rules and paid the taxes at the red channels all over the country. The rules are clearly described at the Customs website and at the airports, so no one should feign ignorance of the rules. In any case, given that India does not have “free” ports, how can people assume that they can just walk in and not be expected to pay duties ?
So, I was amused when one (actually several over the past 6 months) actress was caught by the Customs last week at the Mumbai International Airport and released only after payment of taxes, duties and penalties. She complained about the Customs Department’s behaviour, stating that they informed the media who covered the incident. She also stated that she did not know the Customs rules, and so failed to declare the good she had brought from overseas.
Who would believe ? She is an intelligent and well-read person, and her claim of ignorance of rules is only laughable. Why do Indians with intelligence, knowledge, education, social status and wealth, feel that they could take the government for a ride ? May be if a poor Indian below poverty level does that, it might be considered to be OK, but what about wealthy and well-known people ?
While it is not necessary for the Customs Department to make a noise about any one individual, their attempt to shame such people is not without precedence. Such acts also would show to the world that they are not scared of powerful and influential or famous people in their city of operation, and they are applying the rules on the statute without fear or favour. What is wrong with that approach ?
The other fact is that if the law does allow, the repeat offenders should be jailed. I am not sure whether the Customs computers do throw up the names of the first time offenders at the immigration counter itself, so that the customs officials can keep a watch to nab them.
Let us follow rules. If the concerned person has walked through the red channel, she would have paid less than one-fourth of what she incurred by not declaring her goods. Let us not set bad examples, let us remember that our own examples are very important when we are people of substance in the society.
8th January 2012