2nd May, 2018
We have heard this expression "tax terrorism" from a number of quarters. It conjures up an image of aggressive tax officials conducting assessments and demands in excess of what is a fair share of tax revenue. There are some classic cases in recent memory which shot into limelight where even Supreme Court judgements were overturned by enacting retro-active tax laws going back several decades. Tax risks caused by uncertainties in taxation is well known. What has been recently unearthed by CBI recently in the Nhava Sheva, Mumbai Customs reportedly is a form of tax terrorism by elite branches of the Customs and some private individuals such as Customs House Agents.
The CBI has arrested four customs officer 3 Dy Commrs (DCs), Mukesh Meena, Sudarshan Meena, Sandeep Yadav and one Supdt Manish Singh. One Dy Commr, Rajeev Kumar Singh is reportedly absconding. They also arrested a Customs House Agent (CHA) Nilesh Singh in an alleged bribery case where a demand of Rs 50 lacs was made. Another CHA Datta Sonawane is also absconding. They were produced before the CBI Court yesterday on 1st May, 2018.
These Senior customs officials were from the elite investigative branches of customs. They are Special Intelligence & Investigative Branch (SIIB), Marine & Preventive (M&P) and Rummaging & Intelligence (R&I). If the reports and charges are correct, it seems like a well designed modus operandi with a team (including the CHA) in place to harass importers & create opportunities for bribery at Nhava Sheva Port, Mumbai.
CBI has registered a case of bribe demanded from the complainant, a businessman, Amjad Mohd Bakali to "manage" the clearance of a imported consignment. The consignments included cosmetics. Reportedly, much of the imported goods were diverted by these accused for their personal use. Hence only some of the goods were recovered, whereas a major portion is yet to be recovered.
It was alleged that this group demanded initially Rs 25 lakhs to clear the consignments illegally kept on hold. Later the amount was reduced to Rs 21 lakhs and thereafter raised to Rs 50 lakhs. The arrested officers were produced before the CBI Court on 1st May, 2018.
CBI laid a trap and caught the CHA Nilesh Singh red handed on 30th April accepting a part of the bribe of Rs 5 lakhs. Reportedly is was the first installment of bribe. The role of the deputy commissioners and superintendent were said to be discovered during investigation. It is reported that Nilesh Singh is not new to this, he had been arrested thrice on earlier occasions.
What is interesting is around 40 other officers mainly comprising of batch-mates and colleagues of these arrested officer were in court to show solidarity with them. What does this solidarity actually mean? Is it in support of bribery? Don't they believe in the impartiality of the CBI and that the truth whatever it is will emerge? Who are the people orchestrating such support? How is it that officers who have already been arrested for similar offences in the past are again posted in such elite sensitive departments? Isn't this reviewed by the Personnel and Vigilance? Does this mean the rot has spread in the entire department and it is well institutionalized?
The investigators and also the Central Board of Indirect Taxes & Customs (CBITC) should carry out a forensic audit into all past cases where consignments were kept on hold. This will provide a clear picture of how much damage has been already done to the system. Its likely this is one of the standard modus operandi to corner importers into submission. The nation cant make progress without rooting out institutionalized corruption.
The CHA and the staff involved should be immediately blacklisted and should be handed a lifetime ban from customs.