Unsung warriors – Mumbai Customs
Tuesday,13 July 2021 01:24 PM IST
K.P. Sasi Nair (firstname.lastname@example.org)
A handful of organisations kept the wheels of government humming during the pandemic-forced shutdown last year. The stellar role they played has largely gone unnoticed. It’s time to shine the torch on their herculean efforts and showcase their achievements. They are an inspiration to everyone.
The lockdown in India and in the rest of the world disrupted global trade overnight, through supply chains into disarray and posed a serious shortage risk of everything, including important items for healthcare. There was an urgent need to facilitate cross border trade of vital goods and services to wade off a systemic collapse.
Without wasting time Mumbai Customs, or specifically Mumbai Zone III (MZIII), embraced the lead role to expedite cargo movement. Factories across the world either cut back or halted operations, save a few that produced items to fight the pandemic and for everyday use. As speed was critical air routes were the preferred mode of transport.
Sahar in Mumbai, home to India’s largest air cargo complex, thus became the gateway to the country during the lockdown months. It was no easy task as skilled workers had mostly bolted in the wake of the fear psychosis that gripped the nation, exporters and importers were reluctant to venture out and there was an overall feeling of intransigence.
MZIII Chief Commissioner Rama Mathew led from the front. A day after the lockdown was announced, she showed up at the air cargo complex like a general marshalling his troops. Her presence and quick thinking made a decisive impact. Under her guidance senior officers painstakingly contacted each stakeholder – manufacturers, exporters, importers, agents, handlers and so on – and instilled confidence in them. A new normal was worked out to the satisfaction of all. Going beyond the mandate of Customs, which was basically to clear cargo for export or import, officers swung into pivotal roles to resolve issues related to physical movement.
For instance, to overcome labour shortage for handling cargo, officials took the initiative to bring in custodians and manpower supplying companies to fill the void. Dialogue windows were kept open at all times, oversight was maintained to untie knotty issues on a daily basis and sometimes on a consignment basis. For critical medical supplies, their movement and delivery of consignments were constantly monitored.
Mathew appointed a very senior officer to help monitor and streamline responses to requests pouring in through emails, social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook, Central Covid Helpdesk in Delhi, trade bodies and individuals. Nodal officers were formed for each unit under MZIII – whose geographical jurisdiction covers a wide span from Mumbai, the surrounding four districts and the continental shelf comprising the Exclusive Economic Zone.
While the Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs (CBIC) took on the lead role at the national level, the MZIII was the pivot for the biggest and most crucial region.
As part of proactive measures, nodal officers were battle ready round the clock not only to resolve customs matters but to sort out issues such as locating cargo in the premises, liaising with logistics agencies and the police. A daily review of progress and disposal of cases was undertaken. Waiver of demurrage guidelines by the government and simplified documentation also helped.
The all-out efforts saved the country from what would otherwise have been a strangulating choke. The abrupt lockdown announced in late March 2020 had initially caused chaos. Uncleared goods piled up as workers left in droves and transport services were thrown out of gear, shrinking the space in the complex. By mid-May, however, the authorities succeeded in bringing about a semblance of normality.
The CBIC also chipped in by promptly acknowledging written communications, conveying decisions in a time- bound manner and ensuring refund and other claims were settled on time.
Even before the lockdown, the MZIII with 1,400 staff on its rolls was in the thick of action. About 28 lakh passengers passed through the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport in Mumbai, the country’s second-busiest, in the first three months of 2020 as the Covid outbreak loomed. To handle the rush and to take precautions, the Customs opened more counters and speeded up clearances.
Social distance norms were imposed and separate counters started for passengers coming in from Covid-struck regions. A team of Customs officers who were also doctors put up their hands for duty, providing a big thrust to relief operations when sick, elderly, women with babies or children arrived. Vande Bharat flights, which mostly flew between May and September 2020, to bring in stranded people were also promptly cleared by Customs.
Several officers and other staff went beyond their call of duty to ensure the easy flow of critical goods and services, often at great personal risk when most of the country remained safely indoors. Despite taking precautions many officials and their families were infected by the Covid virus. A small team under Mathew’s direction monitored the situation closely and ensured each of them were adequately taken care – financial, logistics and hospitalisation.
The nation owes a big chunk of gratitude to these silent warriors, led by a lion-hearted woman.