How India Cut Time For Goods To Come Through Ports with Vijay Singh Chauhan

Have you ever wondered what it takes to reduce the time spent for goods to transit through Indian ports? Find out on this episode where former commissioner of customs Vijay Singh Chauhan explains it all.

6 May 2024 12:00 PM GMT

In this conversation, journalist Puja Mehra speaks to Vijay Singh Chauhan about streamlining cargo clearance processes in India, the challenges faced during COVID-19 in cargo clearance and much more.


Puja Mehra: Mr Chauhan, I first met you when you worked as part of the office of the then finance minister many, many years ago and I recall that… you had summoned me because the minister had decided that a report of mine…(I was in those days, a newspaper reporter) and a report he thought was inaccurate. And he thought that since he, you were a senior of mine from Delhi School of Economics, you'd be able to persuade me to change my position. I don't recall what story it was, but I do recall this incident and I'd like to maintain that I wasn't inaccurate. But nevertheless, over the years, so many interactions with you, I've gained so many insights. And I'm so glad you agreed to come to the series for this conversation.
VSC: Pleasure. PM, both of us have come a long way since we were in
D-School. And then, you know, I was in the Ministry of Finance and you were covering it. I also don't remember what exactly that episode was, but I do remember meeting you and being, you know, since then I have been following what you write, what you report, and it's absolutely a delight to be talking to you.
PM: Thanks. You know, it's impossible to write about the world of policymaking without getting these insights because from the outside, people never realize how it is. So let me. You know, I know that you have put out what is called a time release study on cargo shipments and how important that is for an economy like India.
But before I get into the details of that, I want to start this conversation by requesting you to tell my listeners about your career. What is the work that you do? What is the work that customs does? You know, if a laptop, for instance, is being imported into the country, what is the journey it takes from the time it gets manufactured, say, in Taiwan, a factory, and then lands up on my desk. And how the interface with customs determines what my experience and my business is going to be. And, you know, just sort of so that we have… We have some idea of what is the role of customs and revenue service in the economy.
VSC:So, you know, PM, when we are talking of imports and exports from the country, it's important to understand that there are various modes through which cargo may enter into the country and may be taken out. The most important in terms of the sheer volume would be the seaports. But high value items come through the air cargo. There are land borders which are not so important in case of India if you were to look at it in terms of the value or the volume; but they're integral to our good neighbourhood policy. In India because it's such a large country and there is a huge hinterland, it has not been possible to cater to all the areas through the seaports. So what we have is about 200 dry ports in the country.
Dry ports are essentially, you would have heard of the ICD, inland container depots. If you're a Delhi born person, you would remember that when you pass through the Pragati Maidan, you would see those containers lying there and wonder what they are actually about. The containers are more known to us through Bollywood movies when some of the sequences are shot there with the hero like Vijay or Amitabh Bachchan jumping onto them and then fighting right on top of those containers. So those containers, what happens is that they actually come to the seaport. But instead of completing the regulatory check there, they are moved to these hinterland ports and the processes are completed there.
The interesting thing here, I would like to tell you, is that we all, like, I'm a customs officer and I love to answer to the description of customs. But when we are talking of the regulations that apply to goods coming in or going out of India, it's not just the customs which actually handles that. And if I was to just ask you, guess how many agencies could perhaps be involved in regulating the movement of goods into the country…. Order of magnitude 5,10, 20, 25… It actually is 50. It actually is 50. And so is it in the United States of America. So it's not as if, like, you know, we are an outlier. So any large country which has various concerns and is a democracy, which is trying to answer to the socio economic, political concerns of various kinds, has industries which are diverse and needs to be kind of protected against unfair trade by the rest of the world, would actually sometimes need to have these kinds of regulatory agencies.
It's the pride of customs that, you know, most people think that it is the customs which is only manning that. So we get a lot of credit for it. And sometimes we also get the brick bats for the problems which are actually not entirely due to customs.

PM: I want you to tell us, you know, say, for instance, what are the different kinds of interfaces you end up having which influences India's trade? For instance, if there is, you know, some urgent shipment or, you know, something that needs urgent attention or just various anecdotes from your from your career that sort of help bring to life for my listeners what it is that you do.
VSC: Okay, so that's very interesting. So, you know, the time sensitivity is something which any government in any area should be very careful about. In customs when the cargo moves, you know, we've all heard of the Japanese system of ‘Just in Time’.
But let me give you two examples, particularly from the COVID time when I was posted at the largest air cargo complex in Mumbai. And totally unrelated, one would be getting the vaccines into the country. So they need to be through the cold chain, in the sense that the vaccine actually loses potency if it is kept out of the cold chain reefer (Refrigerated) baskets for a longish period of time. So what happened was because the flights were so uneven and the clearance from the port was so difficult, that the entire reefer ….refrigerated storage place was actually full. And we needed those vaccines sometimes to be taken out. Not just vaccines, other instruments as well. So how do you get them out the quickest, to kind of try and help them and. Absolutely at the other end… And, you know, I don't think I have ever faced so many people actually reaching out to me is actually to get their pets brought into the country. So when you think of a cargo being imported into India, you wouldn't actually think of pets. But when you think of a period when, you know, a person came into India just for a few days and she was stuck here while her pet was somewhere away, the both were distraught.

And as the economy, as the flights got restored, many of them actually tried to get their pets together, because it was perhaps easier to get the pet into the country than for them to go back to their pets. And there are a lot of very, very interesting individual instances which were there. But the point of time sensitivity comes in most starkly through these two mechanisms. But the larger issue actually is of: while we try and meet all the regulatory concerns that a sovereign may have on the border, to do them as efficiently and as quickly as is possible, because time is money is perhaps best understood in terms of minimising the time that we take to clear consignments at our ports.

VSC: I might add there that not just time sensitivity, but it's so nice to see, you know, human sensitivity, human quality of such a senior customs officer and the department as a whole to give consideration to pets and people wanting to unite with their pets in an unusual circumstance, such as Covid.

Let's now talk about the study that you've been undertaking. What are the main key findings of this study?

PM: You've known me for long enough to know that… Let me digress and say that I recently picked up a teaching assignment in a National Law University. And when I put that out in the social media, a lot of people said, now you can very happily say you are a teacher, and you don't have to just say that you are a civil servant.

So what I always liked to do was to study whatever I was doing or whatever area that I was in. And the other area that fascinates me all the time is the difference between perception and reality. So when I landed up in Nhava Sheva, which is JNPT, which is the largest containerized port in the country, the 30th largest in the world, what we found, this is 2017, and the World Bank, it was doing a kind of what was called the Ease of Doing Business Report. And there India was ranked way down, and the customs component of it was even lower. And they said, and I'm quoting the exact number, they said that the average time taken in clearing a consignment at Nhava Sheva was 279 hours.

And we had the data, and that data comes to us because 100% of cargo clearance in India happens in an electronic environment.

PM: So what do you mean when you say that?
VSC: Electronic environment means that the processes have to be initiated through what is called the customs automated system. So what happens is that when the cargo arrives, it is reported in the port community system, which is an electronic environment.

So what I mean is that over a period of time, initially it was happening in an electronic environment, but there were papers. Now we have a hundred percent complete faceless, paperless system. So when I say electronic environment, I essentially mean that all the activities are actually mandatorily, required to be registered into this automated system. So the benefits,

PM: Is it some sensors that are sort of, or some CCTV cameras that are monitoring it? Or when you say faceless…
VSC: They are also there. But you see in cargo clearance. Okay, one of the points that needs to be understood is that there are two things which happen more or less together, which is one that the physical cargo moves, and other is the document relating to that move. Okay?
So when I say that it is 100% electronic, I am talking of the document that moves 100% electronically. The goods need to be moved physically… In them we have what are called the RFID chips, which now allow us to track exactly where the cargo is. And they can also be studied and reported, and there are studies to show how much time does a container actually remain in a particular area.

But to read that, actually you need readers, RFID readers in the sense of, you know, they are located at certain places, but that's a physical movement while in documents is the stage-wise movement that we are talking of.

So when it is, yeah, so when it is 100% percent electronic, every activity has a timestamp. We know precisely where a document was pending, with whom it was pending, and it can it, it's actually down to seconds. So when the World Bank reported that we take 279 hours to clear the consignment, and that is basis a sample of just automotive parts coming in from South Korea. And we had the data to show that the average time taken in clearing all consignments from all countries through Nhava Sheva was 188, 181 hours precisely during that year… We recognise how different the perception and reality could be. So we set out to change two things. 181 was not good enough. We needed to reduce that. It was not reflective of the best practices. We needed to be better. And the second important thing was to tell the world that the perceptions are actually incorrect.

And very interestingly, let me jump forward and say that in three years of time, what happened was that we reduced the time from 181 hours to about 104 hours, but the perception actually improved from 279 hours to about 75 hours. So I always cite this example to say that it's more difficult to change reality than to change perception. So the perception could be worse, and the perception could actually be better. It runs ahead of the time. So sometimes we are given credit for doing better than what we actually ended up doing.

PM: But how do you do it? Because, you know, whenever I speak with policymakers, and I speak with so many policymakers, I come across two things.

One, at times they don't know what needs to be done to set things, to correct things. And second, when they do know what needs to be done, there are so many constraints in the system, capacity constraints, policy design constraints, political constraints, because of which they are not able to do what is required to be done.

So in this ecosystem, where generally, you know, we don't come across very often of things, for example where officers or systems or departments are able to deliver such improvements, how did you do it?

VSC: So one, it's, it's unfair to say I did it. I was only a kind of a chronicler of all things that were happening right through the country. But you know, what happens is that one of the larger policy challenges is that when you speak in the Ministry of Finance or let's say in CBIC (Central Board of Indirect Taxes & Customs), of which I was a part, they say that the field officers are not delivering. When you speak as a field officer, they say that, oh, the CBIC officials don't actually know.

PM: Yes, yes, that happens with the direct access side also. I hear this all the time. But you've been part of both. So, so

VSC: in fact, in fact there was a happy coincidence that, you know, there were a whole lot of people who were there, right there in the field. Mr. Vivek Johri, who subsequently retired as the Chairman of CBIC and he had just come in from the WTO having done a stint there and having negotiated a trade facilitation agreement. So it was a kind of a happy coincidence of having people who worked in CBIC for many years, who understood the larger constraint were they're right there at the field to actually implement. And the fact that we were there in the field at that point of time also gave us some kind of a weightage with the officials in the Ministry to actually accept the point that we were trying to make.

But on a larger scale, you see, the more important thing is that trade facilitation is something which doesn't have very many losers. So is a simpler area to implement… The resistance that may be there in trying to do a whole lot of policy changes isn't actually there. It's boring. It's perhaps unexciting to measure how much time does it take.. And do manage to reduce on an average 3 hours of cargo release time? Many of the policymakers wouldn't actually get excited about doing that. And unless you.

PM: No, I would disagree. You're saying two things. One, you're saying that you are part of a specialised cadre as opposed to the IAS. You know, where their general, their skills are general and they move from one department to the other. Today health, tomorrow education, day after finance. So they do not have the advantage of institutional memory or institutional insights into, what policymaking they do. So in contrast to that, since you're most of your career, you and your colleagues spend in a specific department, your understanding and knowledge of what goes on over there is far more diverse, deep, but also less challengeable by the system. You have greater authority.
VSC: Let me put it this way that we have expertise in a narrow area, much narrow area, and when the enabling environment is provided and the top bureaucracy, because this trade facilitation actually was led by what is called the National Committee on Trade Facilitation, which is headed by the Cabinet Secretary himself. Right. And it has representatives of various ministries, because, as I said, that it's not just the CBIC or Department of Revenue which can deliver on that. So there is a kind of what is now called whole of government approach to this.

PM: No, I agree. The point I was making was that the point I was making is that, you know, it's easier for you to make your point because, you know, the department understands things a lot better than a department which would be made of officials who come only for two years and, you know, get transferred to some other department after that. So one is your expertise, like you say, the niche. And second is that, you know, so you know what you're saying. And second, when you have that reputation, the system is likely to listen to you a little more. Probably the receptivity is going to be slightly higher…
VSC: That absolutely is true, because you see, when you combine, you know, expertise, data and you understand how to sell an idea, it does get sold. Sometimes you also are able to, you know, find data to prove or disprove a point that you have.

Let me give you an example. So, you know, in 2017, the Government of India was fixing target release time. And the larger theory of performance measurement says that, you know, you know, what gets measured gets done. Okay? So they put a target in terms of the early target: that the cargo at the seaport import cargo must be cleared in 72 hours. And using the data that was there, we actually showed that actually the process of initiation of the cargo clearance, which is to be done by an importer or his agent, was actually not beginning in 72 hours. So if there was nothing done, even then, the cargo wouldn't actually get cleared in the time period that is, that was being prescribed. You fast forward..
PM: Why was it taking so long?
VSC: The trade was like, you know, so when there is an inertia, all stakeholders are in a state of inertia. So what is required is, and you can go into the entire theory of nudge as to how do you nudge various stakeholders and how do you convince them that it is in their interest and the other stakeholders also are part of, have, what should I say, awakened to the opportunity that is presented and clear the consignment. So one of the major exercises that we did was to get all the stakeholders to realise that the world is changing and they also need to change.

PM: I found a very interesting data nugget in your report, or the draft that you've written about it, where you say $1 trillion a year can be sold globally. This is in the year 2016. It's probably likely to be higher now by just simplifying the export import processes, etcetera, because trade costs would then go down by 14.3%.
VSC: That's true. That's a WTO data. That's a WTO data. And in fact, we did try to actually do some kind of a study to see how trade costs can be reduced by simplifying these procedures, and there are immense savings. Unfortunately, in many of the large companies, this point is actually not recognised that there is an opportunity to reduce trade costs, largely because over a long period of time, we've been more focused on the duties that are attracted.

The very same study from which you've quoted actually says that the entire concern with reducing the trade time and trade time arose from the fact that they realised that the tariffs, duties on import of goods were actually much lower than the expenditure on the time that was being taken in clearing those consignments. So that's the largest academic.

PM: Now I want you to tell me, what, where all did you end up saving time and how. What is the streamlining that was done?
VSC: Okay. So we actually articulated it as what is called ‘Path to Promptness’. So, the path to promptness was… It's basically, the first part is pre arrival processing. So if you're going to look at the documents, why do you need to wait for the cargo to come before you look at those documents? So the law was changed, actually, to insist that you must initiate the documentary process either before the cargo has come or within 24 hours of the cargo coming. And should you not do that without reason, you'll actually be asked to pay a fee. And that worked wonders? That worked wonders.

PM: Who pays this fees?
VSC: The guy who doesn't file the document on time. Yeah, the importers. Yes. Yes. And because of that, again, I'll give you a number that in 2017 at Nhava Sheva, about 17% of the importers had filed the document before the cargo came. That number jumped to more than 93% in 2023. So majority of the regulatory checks are already done before the cargo comes in.

The second thing is that, as I said, that various agencies needed to approve that or be consulted to say that they have no objections. So, in the earlier years, before the electronic environment came in, the same document would move. So it was like a sequential process. The digitisation enabled parallel processing. Okay. So we reduced time in that.

The third thing was that earlier, we used to check all consignments. Then we moved to that… You know, why do I need to check all consignments of all entities? There are some entities who deserve more trust. So there is a global mechanism of what is called the ‘authorised economic operator’. You step forward to be trusted. And once you are trusted, then basis the electronic data that you've already submitted before the cargo arrives,
AI-based systems actually say that about 90% of them actually don't need to be looked at at all. So, whatever is declared…

PM: Are you telling me that we are using AI to decide which consignments to trust? And therefore, 90% of the consignments we are not physically examining. That's so impressive.

VSC: Yes, it is

PM: probably..Which is why, you know. Do you recall, you know, we used to see customs and ports in Bollywood, you know, in films all the time in connection with, like we were speaking earlier, Sona Uttar Gaya hai on the port types, like, you know, smuggling of gold. And the other time it would get featured was due for strikes, strikes on the port. And we don't see mention of ports in Bollywood… It's out of popular imagination because of I think what you're saying right now, the trust factor is such that smuggling is probably tougher.

VSC: So, you know, smuggling of like, bringing in... So gold smuggling continues. And, you know, we can actually have a different entire session on the kind of industry that has grown because of gold smuggling into the country. What has happened is that the duty rates have been significantly brought down. So you can literally import anything into the country on payment of a very nominal rate of duty. And that has happened, so if you want to,

PM: it's not as profitable to smuggle gold. I understand that point, but I.

VSC: Not just gold. Everything else

PM: True.

VSC: So if you…
PM: So, what I was saying is that in popular imagination, it's just become the ports or the infrastructure of ports, or export; it isn't so much a hassle anymore. Therefore it doesn't get featured. You know, it doesn't show up.

VSC: That's correct. So when you streamline something, it becomes business as usual. One of the ways that was achieved was that lot of the ports in the country today are actually privatised. So if I was to compare a Mumbai port, which is the old Mumbai port, which is right there in south Mumbai, and if you travel there, you would see it occupies a massive space. And it was entirely a government-owned entity. But when Nhava Sheva or JNPT was set up, only the terminal to begin with, the first terminal was owned by the government, but it was catered to by what were called container freight stations, which were mostly private owned and spread over a much larger area. So the container came and was just moved out, either to the CFS and thereafter subsequently to the ICDs, which were all private businesses, and they were not…unionised in a manner

PM: And yet you are able to trust..

VSC: and yet you are able to trust because you see 90% of the time people who can be trusted…. So one of the most interesting changes in Customs has happened is that it was earlier, what is what you can call a transactional arrangement —- there is a consignment, you look at that, check that and let it go. But when the volumes grew, there is no way that you can check all consignments. So you went back and looked at who's importing. So from transactional to systemic is the change that we have brought about. So we now go by entity based, you know, risk parameters. And that help us say that, you know, and that's why, if you look at the data, it's not that the detections by the customs in terms of those who are evading the duty have gone down. In fact, it has gone up. And I won't discuss more of the details here, but the ability of the department to actually go and catch a particular consignment is absolutely amazing on the basis of the data, deep data analytics that go behind it.

PM: But if you can give some examples, that'll be nice.
VSC: Okay, so let me give you just one example. Sometime when we were in this is between 2016 to 2018 or so. There was a consignment in which air conditioners were coming, and each of the air conditioners had a kg of gold built into it. A gold bar in each of the air conditioners. Right now, how do you catch something like that?
You catch it on the basis of a whole lot of back end things... To know that you'll have to open, you'll have to see their conditioner. Even if you see an x-ray as such, it would not be very easy to do that. Support of technology we now have what are called drives through scanners at Nhava Sheva.

So the specs that they generate, it's high technology items. So each of the kind of material that is getting cleared provides you with a different kind of spec. And you have to be really well trained to actually read those specs and find that there is a difference within that. And sometimes you can be sent on an absolutely wild goose chase, because it is a kind of an odd picture which is there in a 40ft container. And you eventually... Let me give you an example. So we were at Tughlaqabad and there was a massive consignment which was coming, and it was declared as carpets coming from Turkey. And there was in between a kind of a… about a feet of a dark picture which was there. And, let me not bore you with the details, but let me tell you that when we finally opened and I was present there myself, because I thought it was a very interesting thing; it was actually a machine to just repair the stitchings on the side of the carpet before they could be sold. So sometimes you could be end up spending half a day on something which doesn't, but it just makes you more intelligent and all of these experiences actually make you are inputs that make you smarter to handle the next challenge that will come your way.

PM: So what's the future? And, you know, how much more you think the time release time can be brought down, how much more efficient our ports can get?

VSC: So when we are looking at the ports efficiency, there are two parts that we should look at. What's the turnaround time of the vessel that comes in? And the second is how quickly do we release the cargo?

Since I focused more on how quickly can we release the cargo, I'll speak mostly about that. I think that we should be in a position to get a cargo out in less than 24 hours of the cargo arriving at the port of a trusted client who filed the document in time. So it should be less than 24 hours for sure, which is somewhere right now around 48. So we can reduce it to half as well.

Just to give you the perspective, the oldest study relating to how much time do we take to clear a consignment in India dates back to 2010. That's a CAG report… was about 14 days.

PM: My God.

VSC: So 14 days to the possibility of 48 hours or 24 hours.

PM: And the other thing I noticed is that you use the word client. Yeah. VSC: Yes, I do. I do. Also, because, you see, there are various entities, but the challenge alternative is how much time do we take to clear and export consignment?

And, you know, I used that expression which is like, what gets measured, gets done. And thereafter I, one day I was at one of the airports, you know, actually, to be precise, I was in Bangalore studying the time that they take to clear the consignment. And I found a book which says, measure what matters by John Doerr, management guru. So, you know, from there, what the focus on how much time do we take to clear an export consignment? And you'd be surprised…that the time that we take to clear and export consignment is about double the time that we take in clearing an import consignment. And the reason for that is absolutely different, because there are very few regulations in exports. So the time taken in that regulatory clearance is just a fraction of the time that is taken in regulatory clearance of import. But the supply chain and the logistics and the infrastructural issues are far more significant in case of export.

So if you look at the studies that, you know, you've been so kind to read, what you'll realize is that it says that the time taken post grant of Let Export Order (LEO), that's very, very substantial. Sometimes it could be 80% of the overall time taken. So those are infrastructural challenges. I can tell you with confidence the government of India is aware of those, because if they've also conducted a study to figure out all of it, and there are very various challenges which are there that need to be focused, but they will take a little more time to do that, because some of those physical issues… one of the things that I honestly, one issue that I don't have an answer to is that what are called that, you know, when the small export consignments have to be exported, let me give you an example. Let's say that Moradabad brassware exporter decides to export,one ton of a consignment to somewhere in , let's say, Europe. So first he has to send that one ton of consignment from Moradabad to Nhava Sheva. There it has to be actually put in a container with other cargo, which is going to that country. And so it needs to be stacked up, otherwise the costs would be too high. So aggregation of the consignment for export purposes, particularly when the export destinations are not very, what should I say, major ones, takes a lot more time. But what would be interesting is to keep doing these kinds of studies because they provide kinds of insights that are very surprising.

So I can say with confidence that I did this first study in 2017, to be precise, and the amount I have learned about the cargo clearance in India, and my own perceptions, which have subsequently been proven to be not entirely true, make this such a fascinating thing that, as you know, that I'm doing a PhD on this subject, which I should be completing by next year.

So it's an absolutely fascinating area of work where you study the data, you see the human behavior, you talk about law, you talk about nudge, and then the entire importance of evidence-based policy making.

PM: What are your perceptions? What are your perceptions earlier perceptions that you've now given up to change your views.
VSC: So, one of the perception is that there is an assumption that everybody wants the cargo to be cleared in the minimum possible time. There may be a very small percentage of importers who are who for whom the primary objective is not to take the cargo out in the minimum possible time. It would be a very small percentage, but I'm sure that it would be. It is a few percent. So this is based more on my anecdotal interaction with the trade. Let me try and give you a kind of a story understanding of what is happening. So, here is this guy who goes to China finds a product that he thinks would have a market in India. The Chinese guy actually offers to sell it to him on credit. So he gets the consignment in Nhava Sheva. When he gets it there, then he actually finds buyers in India and then takes advance payment from the buyers in India and only then actually takes the goods out. So he actually is doing a business in which he does not actually spend any money there.

And the surprising part is that some of the time the cost of these products in China is so less that even when they pay the penalty for filing those documents or initiating those documentary processes late, even then they end up making money.

PM: So you're saying that by ensuring that the consignment stays on the port and it does not become his responsibility, he's saving on perhaps, you know, inventory, etcetera costs and the credit cost.

VSC: No, he doesn't have the money because to clear the consignment, he has to pay the duty, he has to pay the port charges. So he …

PM: It is like an overdraft facility

VSC: At both ends. So the supplier has given him free and the buyer pays him advance

PM: Wow, that's a business model.

VSC: That's a business model. So, you know, because you see, let me give you the numbers. So if you file that bill of entry, which is the document one day later than the prescribed time, you pay a fee of Rs5000 per day, which is huge in the context. So if they're willing to pay that, and as I said, that about 6-7% of them still pay that fees… And the other interesting thing is that, let's say you have initiated the process and the duty has been determined to be paid. And if you don't pay that within 24 hours of that assessment being completed, you have to pay interest on delayed payment of the duty, which is at the rate of 18%. And yet that was not a deterrent, essentially, because 18% of… For two days of even a few lakh rupees of duty per consignment actually turned out to be very small.

So what we found was that this number, which I said was 17 to 93, was more effective than getting the people to pay the duty on time.
Okay, so it's a very interesting insight into how the commerce works.

And you know, since both of us have studied economics, we can say that when laws are made taking into account the economic possibility or economic consequences of it, or economic incentives, they work much better than being just made law… Because I have the power to make law.

PM: Yeah. Before I let you go, I know, and I recall that you spent a lot of time during Covid decongesting the port because there was a piling up of consignment shipments over there. So how did you do it? And that that would have influenced your policy, you know, what you think of what policy changes are required. So, you know, so if you could tell me a bit about that.

VSC: So that was an interesting task and challenge. But when I talk of Covid and when I talk of the challenges, I must pay respect to more than 180 customs officers who succumbed to Covid during that period, essentially because that was one point which was working.

So I was in office on 24 March, and continuously thereafter every day. And when you work at some of these, even at Sahar, what you find is that people come from all parts of Mumbai. So a lot of us took real risk to life, and many of my colleagues actually succumbed to it. CBIC has been sensitive enough to bring out a book to pay homage to all these people who've passed away. So that's the first part.

The second is that you have to find innovative solutions to the challenges and quite often, and the entire focus on getting the customs to be absolutely contactless, that no one needs to come to the premises to actually get the documentary part cleared. It's only to take possession of the physical goods that you need someone to come to the port premises. So you would… If you saw the numbers, there was marginal increase in the average time that was taken in cargo clearance during 21 and 22. And we have time series data to show that.

So, you know, we built on a whole lot of technology and methodology and ways in which we can continue to work without any kind of a physical, you know, physical interface with the trade.

PM: So How did it start piling up? And then how did you do it?

VSC: So the piling up is much less where the time taken is much more. Right. So, okay, let me try and explain that to you again. The average time taken in clearing the consignment is, let's say, for ten days. Okay? So if the disruption continues for ten days only, then you will see a pile up. But if the average time taken in clearance is 12 hours, pile up, that's why, as I said, that the pileup was significantly more at the air cargo, and it was even more for what we call reefer cargo, which is refrigerated cargo, because the space that has been generally created for handling this kind of a consignment was much less. So we need to find some innovative ways of, you know, trying to get them going.

PM: Do you want to say a bit about what all you did?
VSC: Let's leave it. Because some of them would technically be finding solution just at that point of time. And if they were to be looked at strictly in terms of whether they answer to each of the policy concerns sometimes they may with the benefit of hindsight you could say that you could have thought of an alternate way and all… but the fact of the matter was that the entire system was absolutely running without any kind of a bottleneck at any point of time.

VSC: On that note, let me say thanks to you for such an insightful conversation.

Updated On: 6 May 2024 3:00 PM GMT
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