Pure Care Limited imported around 2,400 litres of extra virgin coconut oil, but when it tried to take delivery of consignment, a Chattogram Customs House official attempted to change the Harmonised System (HS) code of the product, saying it was refined oil.
At one point, the customs official demanded Tk1 lakh in bribe for clearing the consignment. As Pure Care Limited refused to pay the bribe, the customs official completed the taxation process for the consignment on 3 November – two weeks after receiving its bill of entry, but blocked it in the Automated System for Customs Data (Asycuda) system by creating confusion regarding the HS code.
Traders have said currently the biggest obstacle in the import-export trade is the complications related to HS codes, which is not justifiable in any way. It is mainly the revenue officers at Chattogram Customs House who create such complications for most of the consignments in order to collect bribes.
A large number of containers remain stuck at Chattogram port for an inordinately lengthy period due to this problem, alleged the importers.
HS Code is a common standard used worldwide for classifying traded goods into approximately 5,000 commodity groups. Customs authorities use it to identify products while assessing duties.
About 2,000 bills of entry of imported goods are filed at Chattogram Custom House every day on average. Around 40-45% of the goods imported through Chattogram port are raw materials for the garment industry. Almost all these products are imported with duty free or bonded warehouse facilities.
Importers, garment owners and business organisations who frequently face harassment at the hands of customs officials have held several meetings with customs commissioners and informed the National Board of Revenue (NBR) about the issue, but all their efforts have been futile so far.
Faruque Hassan, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), sent a letter to the commissioner of Chattogram Customs House on 30 October, asking for a resolution of the problem.
The BGMEA president urged the customs authorities to complete the customs clearance process quickly by taking a pledge from the importer in case the HS code of a consignment is not mentioned in the bond licence. He also urged the customs commissioner not to impose fines if the HS code is not initially included in the bond licence but is included later for payment of customs duty.
The BGMEA president's letter further mentioned that many garment manufacturers have failed to export goods in time due to complications regarding the clearance of imported raw materials. Many export orders were cancelled due to this problem, causing a financial crisis for the exporters. Consequently, they have not been able to pay labourers' salaries on time.
Shoeb Kabir, owner of Pure Care Limited, told The Business Standard, "The shipment of coconut oil has been stuck for the last two weeks due to the complications created by the customs officials. The order for the product has been cancelled as we could not deliver it on time.
"Customs did not clear the shipment only because we did not pay a bribe. The revenue officer got angry and locked the consignment in the software even after charging customs duty. As the goods could not be delivered, the rent for the consignment staying at the port is increasing every day. How can we do business if customs harass us like this?"
Brushing aside the allegation of demanding bribes for Pure Care Limited's shipment, Chattogram Custom House Revenue Officer Md Sarowar told TBS, "We have completed the taxation process for the product. I am not aware which branch of customs has locked it."
Mahfuzul Haque Shah, former director of Chattogram Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said "Goods which are supposed to be delivered within two days are not delivered even after 15 days due to complications regarding HS code. To whom should the harassed businessmen complain? The port management is also suffering because of the dishonest customs officials."
Chattogram C&F Agents Association General Secretary Kazi Mahmud Imam Bilu told TBS that some dishonest customs officials have been harassing importers, which is not desirable in a business-friendly environment.
The importers said if there is a mistake regarding the HS code, the customs authority imposes a heavy fine, which causes panic among traders.