Friday, June 8, 2012

Efficient and Polite Customs

Corruption, policy paralysis may be common but government employees working efficiently is always a pleasant surprise

Good news is rare when it comes to the functioning of our government departments. Corruption, sloth, misuse of power, muscle-flexing , delays, unresponsiveness and red tape are the typical things that we encounter every time we deal with our bureaucratic machinery.

This is unfortunate. But more unfortunate is that even when we occasionally witness a polite, functioning and efficient segment of the machinery, it goes unnoticed and unapplauded. A few years ago, one could have said (and one did in these columns), for instance, that our post and telegraph department was one of the better functioning ones, with their ubiquitous postmen doing more honest work than most other government servants.

Letters rarely went missing irrespective of where you lived, money orders were invariably delivered and the postman helped the odd illiterate villager write a few lines on a postcard. In recent years, with the onset of cell phones, emails and courier services, the sun set upon the era of the post and telegraph for the common man, or at least the common urban man.

The more recent experiences of retired folks with the post offices, one hears , is probably not as pleasant as one often has to grease the postmaster's palms to get one's pension. But imagine the following scenario. You arrive at one of our international airports and having nothing to declare at the customs, are passing through the green channel, when detecting a chalk mark on your bag, you are asked by a customs official from the red channel to place your bag for X-ray screening.

He peers carefully at the console, sees nothing objectionable and, rather than make you open the suitcase and flinging your unwashed clothes all around, he walks up to you with a smile, tells you that his call was a mistake, apologises for the inconvenience caused, shakes your hand and wishes you a nice evening, and then proceeds to hail one of the officials to find out on what basis your bag could have been chalk-marked in the first place.

Well, this was precisely the experience one actually had very recently at the Hyderabad international airport arrival lounge.

Now if you think back, barring exceptions, you may reasonably testify that over several decades of international travel, including the 1980s when one was allowed no more than $8 for every day of international travel, and when virtually any purchase overseas was contraband, you may not have encountered many unreasonable customs officials at the airports, especially if you were reasonably innocent and forthright and not hoping to seriously avoid payment of legitimate duties prescribed in those days.

For example, when you bought that odd electronic gadget and disclosed it at the red channel on international arrivals, it is unlikely that the customs man was unreasonably demanding or visibly corrupt.

It may even be that more often, he was polite and occasionally even indulgent. The episode, a purely random one, highlights several issues, even if the original chalk-mark on my bag was a mistake.

Someone was vigilant enough to spot that I was walking through the green channel, though my bag had an identification mark. Upon detecting the mistake, the official showed the grace of an apology, though he wasmerely doing his duty and no apology was perhaps due. And finally, he immediately initiated an enquiry into the systemic error enquiring why an innocent bag like mine should have been marked in the first place.

As we said, happy and pleasant experiences in the government system are few and far between. One can imagine a few smirks among those readers who may have had a different experience. Of course, one is not naive enough to believe that our customs department is squeaky clean.

One recalls, for example, a surrealistic sight many years ago in the era of severe import restrictions , at the Colombo airport in Sri Lanka. A large number of passengers , some dozen strong, were travelling as a group, on their way to Chennai.

After passing through security, each of them opened their handbags, extracted two large empty handbags, which they then proceeded to fill with whisky bottles and cigarette cartons bought from the duty-free shops, with each large bag filled with some two dozen whisky bottles and dozens of cartons of cigarettes.

One of them was then overheard telling his colleagues exactly which exit to take at the Chennai arrival, where they had a friendly official on duty. What one did about the episode is another story.

Nevertheless, all in all, it would appear from the anecdotal evidence of nearly three decades of travels, that even if there is corruption in the customs, it is probably not widespread, at least at the level of the common traveller.

It may be that one is mistaken in one's assessment of the customs as being less corrupt than, say, the road transport offices, passport or land registration offices. But the trigger for this applause is the specific incident mentioned above. How else do we celebrate islands of happy experiences?

Perhaps in the same spirit, if we want to reinforce more happy experiences, as responsible citizens, rather than take the line, "I am rich and powerful , so I can smoke anywhere, do whatever I want, and no security guard may stop me or frisk me...," as the heavyweights of our country seem to do everywhere. We should all show greater respect and patience to the officials doing their jobs diligently.

By V Raghunathan, CEO, GMR Varalakshmi Foundation

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