D K Acharyya IRS (Customs & Excise)
The summer of 2002 was exciting for the international customs fraternity. The World Customs Organisation, (WCO) was celebrating its Golden Jubilee at Brussels. I, as Member, CBEC, was to lead the official delegation of India. Just three days before our scheduled departure, got a directive from the Ministry of External Affairs that the King of Belgium, King Albert II would be inaugurating the celebration and the succeeding convention. As required by protocol, we should be appropriately attired in black suit and black shoes. I had no black suit. We had a few resourceful officers who spotted a master tailor of 100 years’ vintage in Connaught place, who could tailor without trial, my black suit within 2 days. Finally, I could shake hands with the King in Brussels. The King was a picture of poise and grace. He was all smiles. It was an arduous but charming feat for the king to keep smiling while shaking hands with leaders of delegates form 162 member countries of WCO.
As a high school student, I read the captivating story “Happy Prince” written by Oscar Wilde. Little did I realise that my dream of coming across a real prince would ever materialize, a rank commoner that I was. I came across another person, a princess among ascetics, a saint of the gutter, much earlier. As a young Asst. Collector, I had to enforce the prohibitions on import and export of goods.
Mother Teresa came to then Calcutta Custom House and requested my Secretary for an urgent appointment. It was 1972 and though not yet a noble laureate, she was a very famous person. I came out of my chamber to receive her. She told me that missionaries of Charity had imported some old and used clothing’s for free distribution amongst the poor in a particular suburb of Calcutta. There would be a special ceremony and the District Magistrate had given a date but customs was having some problem in granting clearance. Mother requested for clearance of the consignment within the next 48 hours so that all engagements could stand. On checking up I found that the goods were already exempt from import duty subject to a post – clearance certificate by the District Magistrate. But clearance was held up because the imported clothing’s were to be fumigated by port Health authorities which I could arrange immediately after talking to senior officers of Port Trust. Mother’s face beamed with joy and profusely thanked us.
About the same time my encounter with some academic celebrities was not so smooth. I had issued show cause notices to some importers, proposing confiscation of some books because they were scurrilous, indecent and immoral. There was a hue and cry as to how one young Asst. Collector could take upon himself the custody of morality of society. I had to explain that Customs had to exercise border control by enforcing prohibitions under various enactments. All cerebral outpourings of celebrities could be peacefully resolved. Difficulties continued with the release of the famous “Encyclopedia Britannica” Which had maps showing Jammu & Kashmir outside India. Such cartographically aggressive publications were legally offensive and as such could not be allowed clearance.
While working as undersecretary in North Block, got an offer of working as customs and excise expert in the Secretariat of the, Indirect Taxation Enquiry Committee, headed by Shri L. K. Jha (I.C.S.), who was then Governor of J. & K. He had a clear understanding of the development of customs and inland duties from Kautilya to Adam Smith and beyond. He brought intellectual flavour to the arid area of taxation. His Modified Value Added Tax was a precursor to GST. The chairman used to sometimes fix committee meetings at Srinagar Raj Bhavan. During dinners, he was so caring as to offer us food and drinks by his own hand. L. K. Jha was a prince among civil servants.
As Commissioner of Customs I was posted at Kolkata during 1985-89. I was mainly responsible for anti-smugglings operations in West Bengal, Sikkim and Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Those were the days of in smuggling of gold and out smuggling of narcotic drugs. Unlike in the West coast, in West Bengal having a large land border, there used to be a large number of carriers of small quantities of gold to spread thin the risk of interception. Gold used to be smuggled in body cavities, false bottom of brief cases, shoe soles etc. Foreign currency used to be smuggled out in human bodies. Each hundred-dollar currency used to be neatly folded several times, put in a capsule and swallowed by carriers. Surprisingly, even after liberalization allowing import of primary gold, the same modus operandi of smuggling continues, maybe with some abatement in the quantum of smuggling.
Soon after my second term in Delhi, I found myself in Mumbai Custom House as Commissioner. It was our practice to celebrate the world customs day (which is 26th January) on either 27th or 28th January. A cultural evening used to follow. Special guests on one such occasion were the Bollywood Princess Madhuri Dixit and the famous painter M.F. Hussein. It was an enjoyable evening of music and mirth, poetry and painting. M.F. Hussein drew a sketch depicting Madhuri Dixit with all her grace and charm. This is still adorning the Mumbai Custom House guest house.
A couple of years later when I was Chief Commissioner of Customs, Mumbai, I had to receive and confer with many VIP’s. The British Secretary of State (Home), Mr. Jack Straw came and conferred with me. My batch mate M.N. Singh (IPS, 1967) was then the Police Commissioner and had a separate meeting with Mr. Jack Straw. My conference with Jack Straw was extremely engaging covering a large area of our revenue trends, customs facilitation and control measures, anti-smuggling arrangements communication systems and inter departmental co-operation in joint anti-smuggling operations. Jack Straw, a celebrity, made me feel for once as if I were his peer and it was really great.
All those years have gone by far too fast as if in a rapid dream sequence.
Though not a scientist I realize that time has motion and a variable one at that.