If this continues unchecked, not only will self-esteem be eroded, but the government will lose a crucial revenue stream
Abdullah Al Mamun, an assistant revenue officer of Chittagong Customs House, levied a tax on a Mitsubishi vehicle imported from Japan in the name of the Algerian Embassy in Bangladesh. Tarun Barua, an employee of Homebound Packers & Shippers, a C&F agent in charge of unloading the consignment, proceeded to harass Mamun to protest against the taxation.
Tarun Barua also attacked Saiful Islam, a revenue officer and Mamun's colleague, when he protested the harassment of his colleague. At one point, Barua grabbed Saiful's shirt and physically humiliated him.
Despite physically harassing customs officers for not accepting their unreasonable demands, the proprietors and employees of C&F agencies went on a three-hour strike on 2 November to protest against customs officials' non-compliance.
Saiful Islam said C&F agents aim to force customs officials to act according to their whims. If this continues unchecked, not only will self-esteem be eroded, but the government will lose a crucial revenue stream.
According to Chittagong Customs House Commissioner, Mohammad Fakhrul Alam, C&F agents attack customs officials if any corruption is detected, or if the agents oppose a levied tax. They then proceed to stop work and stage demonstrations. The relevant senior authorities of the government should form an inquiry committee and take appropriate action against the perpetrators of these incidents.
However, Tarun Barua denied any wrongdoing with regards to the customs officer.
Such incidents of harassment at the hands of C&F agent proprietors and employees of Chittagong Customs House, the country's largest customs station, is not new. There have been attacks waged from the Chittagong Customs House right down to the office of the Customs Officer within the port's protected area. Many aggrieved customs officials said they performed their duties amidst insecurity and fear.
On 17 January 2017, C&F agents staff vandalized the office of the erstwhile Assistant Commissioner of Customs House Jetty Examination, Abu Hanif Mohammad Ahad, located within the port complex. They then blockaded his office for two hours.
Customs authorities suspended the license of Manzur Alam, the erstwhile social welfare secretary of the C&F Agents Association, and issued a show-cause notice to Zakir Hossain, general secretary of the C&F Agents Employees Union.
This infuriated the agents, leading them to stage a protest at the customs house in January 2017, stopping work on several occasions.
In the aftermath of this agitation, Abu Hanif Mohammad Ahad was finally transferred and made an Assistant Director at the Chittagong Custom and VAT Training Academy on 24 January. He is currently working as an Assistant Director in Customs Intelligence.
Abu Hanif revealed 19 cases of tax evasion by SN Trade. At the time, two more shipments of SN Trade were seized on account of signature forgery. According to customs officials, Saiful Islam Saif, proprietor of SN Trade, introduced himself as a leader of the ruling party in an attempt to influence the officials.
Hanif also suspended the unloading of 12 consignments of imported sodium chloride by Swadesh Chemicals. This honest and dedicated officer also fined his colleague's brother, the proprietor of Suchana Enterprise.
These incidents had provoked the ire of C&F agent proprietors and employees.
According to sources in Chittagong Customs House, C&F agents, in collusion with importers, are involved in customs evasion, smuggling, import of prohibited goods, forgery of signatures of customs officials, forgery of user passwords, import of used hand gloves, and even development of a website to mask that of the Ministry of Commerce.
In the latest case, Customs House has filed a case under the Digital Security Act against the proprietors of Siam Enterprise and Khan Enterprise.
The Customs House also suspended the licenses of 68 C&F agents from February 18, 2014, to July 30 this year on account of tax evasion and various crimes.
Also, according to Customs House sources, between July 2019 and June 2020, anomalies were detected in 1,448 consignments of the 2,995 suspicious consignments that were inspected. Around 30% of these consignments had money laundering potential. Thus far, Chittagong Custom House has filed four cases of money laundering, accusing the importer as well as the C&F agent owners. Five cases are also awaiting the approval of the National Board of Revenue.
Meanwhile, the C&F Agents Association and its workers staged a day-long protest on January 14 this year over a letter sent to the National Board of Revenue, seeking action against C&F agents involved in unloading imported goods under false pretences.
In addition to revenue losses incurred by the government, the importers have also suffered a great deal.
On 16 January, Altaf Hossain Chowdhury Bachchu, general secretary of the C&F Agents Association, insulted Darashiko, former assistant revenue officer of the Audit Investigation and Research Unit of the Customs House, after the latter asked to see relevant documents for a consignment.
When Darashiko found 23 tonnes of tubing against the listed consignment of 20 tonnes of copper tubes, he requested Altaf to produce the relevant documentation, which infuriated him.
When the matter was reported to Customs Commissioner, Mohammad Fakhrul Alam, he warned Altaf Hossain against repeating such incidents. This correspondent has contacted Altaf thrice, but he avoided discussing the allegation on various pretexts.
When questioned, Zakir Hossain, general secretary of the C&F Agent Employees Union, denied claims that agent workers misbehaved with customs officials. Instead, he argued that there should be a policy for customs house officials and C&F agents to discharge their duties.
According to Chittagong Custom House sources, the C&F Agents Association has often been implicated on allegations of collusion with importers in unloading imported goods. The Association would get furious if any attempt was made to take action against the C&F agent.
Kazi Mahmud Imam Bilu, the first joint general secretary of the C&F Agents Association, told The Business Standard that in some cases, field-level customs officials set out to mislead importers through their subjective interpretation of customs laws. Many C&F agents and employees are unaware of the specifics of such laws, resulting in these episodes.
When contacted, NBR member (Custom Policy and ICT), Syed Golam Kibria said, "These are internal issues of Chittagong Customs House, and will be resolved by the Commissioner himself.