Port Wings News Bureau:
Chennai Port, which is ranked second among the Centre-run major ports in country in handling containers and has weathered several storms over the years, is now passing through a period of uncertainty due to lackadaisical attitude of Chennai Customs.
Though the port has big ambitions to become a top container handling port in the country by improving its productivity, the sheer inefficiency of Chennai Customs to facilitate seamless cargo flow via the port could derail its ambitious plans, warns EXIM fraternity.
With the Madras High Court banning the handling of dusty cargoes like iron ore and coal at the port few years ago citing environmental concerns, the port management zoomed its priority to three Cs - Containers, Cars and Clean cargo -- to remain in positive trajectory.
For the past few years, the port embroiled in severe trailer congestion and the mainline shipping liners, at one point of time even imposed hefty Chennai Trade Surcharge for moving boxes from Chennai. However, the port management managed the congestion issue by taking several infrastructure projects and now has a perfect system in place.
Chennai Port & Congestion:
It was widely believed among the EXIM trade that the Chennai Port management alone responsible for the trailer congestion issue.
Though they had a share in it initially, the management took several corrective measures like streamlining movement of container trailer vehicles inside the port premises, widening of internal roads, opening of more points for entry and exit at main gate.
With these measures, the port management absolved its name from the whole issue and sought the cooperation from Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) personnel and the Chennai Customs for speedier movement of containers.
When the internal assessment by top CISF authorities in the port pinpointed that their personnel posted at the main gate also taking time to check each and every details on shipments, they worked out new strategies for checking and now it has also been properly streamlined.
While the port management and the CISF adapted to the demand given the importance of EXIM for the sustained economy, it is the Chennai Customs, which is still adamant to play the real facilitator role.
Inefficiency of Chennai Customs:
Speaking to Port Wings on a condition of anonymity, an exporter said that the officers of the Chennai Customs should change their attitude towards EXIM community and until unless they change their work culture, growth of Chennai Port will remain in limbo.
“Chennai Customs cannot hide their inefficiency anymore behind the oft-repeated term of officers-shortage. Government of India brought in the Customs Department for facilitating the trade and not to remain as hindrance to the EXIM growth in Chennai,” the exporter added.
“Chennai Port had so far successfully managed frequent labour problems, severe congestion of container trailers and even environmental issue over the years. But the attitude of Chennai Customs Officers is something they are unable to grapple with,” another regular exporter told Port Wings.
Chennai Port’s interim proposal:
To overcome the shortage of Customs officers, as it badly affected the Chennai Port’s prospects, the Chennai Port management at one point of time had taken steps to place its officials on deputation to help speedy verification of shipment documents along with Customs officers. However, the CBEC Board shoot down the proposal citing statutory powers.
Tardy documentation process by Chennai Customs:
According to field-level representatives of Chennai Custom House Agents, the numbering of bills, which were earlier done within few hours, now takes up to even four days. Speaking to Port Wings, a representative said that the officers at Customs department, whose primary work is to facilitate the EXIM trade, are actually forcing the exporters to shift to other ports.
“I really don’t understand the rationale behind the inordinate delay by Chennai Customs for numbering bills. In other Customs Commisinerates, the bills are fast numbered and even cleared within 48 hours,” lamented the CHA representative.
Short visits by Customs officers to nominated CFSs for clearing bills:
While documentation of bills shows the real attitude of Chennai Customs officers against the trade, their short visits to nominated Container Freight Stations (CFSes) denote Customs’ work culture.According to freight forwarding agents, the nominated Customs officer never comes to the CFS on stipulated time. Instead, they force the clearing agents to wait for hours at the CFS for clearing bills. Agents rue that the officers treat the EXIM fraternity as their slaves and never listen to any suggestions to speed up the clearing process.
Kings inside Port premises:
While the documentation process and visit to CFS by Customs officers show their two sides of working culture, they act totally different inside the Port premises.
According to a port source, recently, a representative of one of the two terminals in the port made a complaint to higher officials (at Customs commissionerate) that the Customs officers posted there were lethargic in their work thus forcing container-laden trailers to wait for hours outside the terminal. Irked over the complaint to higher officials, Customs Officers posted the terminal started go-slow and a representative (of the terminal) was forced to apologize to them to bring back the document verification process to normalcy.
“This is the state of officers posted inside the port premises and they act like kings and all others are their slaves,” rued a transport operator.
Appeal to the Prime Minister
While the Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi exhorting the EXIM community to demonstrate their grit and export more products, the attitude of Customs Officers (in Chennai) defeats the very purpose. Until the attitude of such officers’ change, Mr Modi’s vision to improve exports from country will not change much. When contacted for their response, no one from the Chennai Customs Commissionerate was available for comment.