The lack of port modernisation and infrastructural development blamed for the poor performance by the country’s customs
It took 21 days for Iqbal Enterprise to obtain permission from the Chittagong Port Authority to release the raw material it had imported from China as per its declaration. The port customs took five more days to release the goods.
Consequently, the Dhaka-based company had to count fines as it could not deliver the goods to the main firm on time.
Iqbal Enterprise had to face these problems due to the irregular appearance of customs officials, the port's lack of enough scanners, a shortage of lighter vessels, and customs formalities.
Most import and export firms have to go through a similar hassle.
Businessmen blame the poor performance of the customs department on the lack of port modernisation and poor infrastructural development.
The government has taken an initiative to automate the country's customs houses, but that has not been implemented yet. As a result, Bangladesh customs still lags far behind many countries in time management to release goods.
According to the International Financial Corporation – an associate institution of the World Bank, Bangladesh customs takes 123 hours on average to release goods after permission. In 2006, it would spend 78 hours for the same purpose.
Considering facilities at the port – both sea and land, Bangladesh lags far behind many countries in the world, including its Asian neighbours Sri Lanka,
Pakistan and Maldives. The country ranks 108th among 160 countries, which is an indicator of its poor ability in port management.
Experts underscored the need for modernisation of Bangladeshi customs houses if the country wants to expand business in line with the growth in international trade.
"The Automated System for Customs Data or ASYCUDA World is the first step to automate the customs houses. So far, around half of it has been implemented although it began in 2014. There was no customs-to-customs cooperation in this regard," said Md Farid Uddin, a former member of the National Board of Revenue (NBR).
"Goods are still released without any coordination among different parties. Incidents like releasing containers with forged customs documents are also taking place. A risk management system has not been developed in the ports," he argued.
Farid also said the ports have only 11 scanners although they require 120. "Half-done automation can never make the customs smart."
However, NBR's new Chairman Abu Hena Rahmatul Munim expressed hopes that the customs modernisation will be completed soon.
"We have been following the best method to build a modern customs system. We have discussed the issue with relevant stakeholders to set up an automated customs department. All projects undertaken to modernise the customs department will be completed within the shortest possible time," he told journalists on Thursday.
Businesspeople said they have been facing many problems as customs automation has not been completed. They also blamed the old customs law for the problem of not being able to classify some goods accurately.
"Several sections of the 1969 customs law do not go with the present context. Besides, we have to face many problems even before submitting the invoice for importing goods to the authorities concerned," said Mohammad Hatem, the vice president of the Bangladesh Exporters' Association.
He also alleged that customs officials at times demand bribes to sign the relevant file after goods are imported.
As part of the modernisation of the customs, the government has adopted short-term and long-term action plans.
In 2012, Bangladesh ratified the Revised Kyoto Convention that is recognised as the framework for modern customs.
In line with this, the member countries reached a consensus to sign the "Trade Facilities Agreement" during the ministerial level summit in Bali in 2013.
Bangladesh signed this agreement in 2016.
Bangladesh has devised the Customs Modernisation Strategic Action Plan 2019-22 in accordance with these agreements. And the customs modernisation work is being carried out on the basis of this action plan.
The digitalisation process of the Bangladesh Customs started at the beginning of 2014 with the implementation of the ASYCUDA World. With the launch of LAN-based ASYCUDA and then the ASYCUDA Plus, digital information customs began in the country.
Meanwhile, ELC, EXP and e-Payment systems have also been introduced, easing taxation and release of imported goods.
The National Single Window is the biggest project in the history of the Bangladesh Customs.
A separate project implementation unit has been formed to execute this project. In this regard, memoranda of understanding with 39 institutions have been signed.
A Project Management and Quality Assurance consultant has already been appointed to execute this project. The project is scheduled to complete by 2021.
Besides, a project styled "Authorised Economic Operator" has been taken up which will allow the compliant organisations to import raw material through self-declaration.
No checking is required to release their imported goods.
Although this method is popular in various countries of the world, only three institutions have been given approval for this in Bangladesh.
However, the revenue board said the number of such firms will be increased in the future.
In a bid to modernise the customs, the government has introduced National Enquiry Point. A separate unit has been set up at every customs house in the country.
The implementation of the National Single Window will significantly reduce the cost of doing business in the country, said Dr Khondokar Aminur Rahman, member of the National Board of Revenue (Customs Audit, Modernization and International Trade).
He said this will also bring down the export-import costs of businesses to one-fourth of the present costs.
"This is an automated and integrated method," he told The Business Standard, adding that once this system is launched the businessmen will get all customs-related services from a single platform.
Sources at the revenue board said under this project fast tract facilities have been ensured for businesses which use modern technologies and internal control management, and have proved trustworthy with their past records.
Already, the window has begun working by selecting three institutions after formulating necessary rules and regulations. The project will be implemented by including the green channel facility, they also said.