Joining the Indian Customs & Central Excise Service in 1969

Nisha Agrawal/Malhotra, 1969, IC&CES


As a small-town girl who grew up in Jaipur and then joined college in Delhi to study English Literature I had practically no idea what the Civil Services were all about. In Delhi University it was the in thing to appear for the Civil Services Exam, and as many of my friends appeared for the Civil Services Exams so did I; & miraculously got through too(competition was not so much then).The titles of the various Central Services sounded boring and the only services which seemed interesting were the Information Service & the Customs Service. That is how I landed in the IC&CE Service.


In those days we joined for training directly at one of the two major Custom Houses – Bombay or Calcutta. The terse letter from the Ministry specified that we had to report on the stipulated date and make our own arrangements for boarding lodging. As I had joined as lecturer in one of the Delhi colleges after MA,I sought extension for reporting for training (had to give notice)and, as a friend had relatives in Calcutta who promised to help me find accommodation in the YWCA I reached Calcutta in the middle of Sept 1969 to report for duty as an officer of the Indian Customs & Central Excise Service. I had some vague notions of wearing a uniform, armed with a pistol and having a small room like the one I saw in the Finance Ministry, when I had gone to request for change of training from Bombay to Calcutta.


The very next day after reaching Calcutta I was ready at half past 9 to go to the Custom House. My host family told me to delay my departure for the Custom House from 9:30 to 10:30 fearing there would be no officer at sharp 10, but I landed at 10 and had to wait for considerable time before I could find someone to guide me to the correct room etc. The Gentleman assigned to oversee our training was affable and kind and gave me a cyclostyled sheet listing each day’s prog – visits to various sections, departments of the Custom House. On that particular day I was advised to visit the Manifest Clearing Department, so there I was in this huge hall, tables and racks everywhere overflowing with shabby dust laden files and documents, and a never ending stream of people – including a small chaiwala with a kettle dodging elbows and managing to pour miniscule amounts of tea for everyone. The Head Clerk, used to the lost looking probationers who came to him from time to time, took his time to show me a few Manifests & explained in brief what the purpose of this document was Though I took notes this first lesson in Customs procedures frankly went above my head.


The gentleman had had enough for one day and was relieved to note that it was 1;00 & advised me to grab some lunch, as it was lunch time now. I still remember how perturbed I felt not knowing where to spend the next hour or so and where to go and find lunch in that huge Custom House. I decided to take a stroll outside this imposing structure, facing the river Hooghly with a majestic view of Howrah Bridge; and took a full “chakkar” of the Custom House, stopping by all the various vendors on the footpath selling wallets, handkerchiefs, spectacle cases,” jhal muri” etc. etc. When I returned, I still felt uncomfortable going back to the MCD, as the babu had made clear that he had explained all that was to be told, I decided to meet the Asst Commr I had met in the morning again but he was not in his room. After wandering around I looking for the other probationers who would have joined before me, I reached the Board Room where someone told me I would find them. I diffidently walked into this very imposing luxurious room, and asked the two suited gentlemen sitting there where I could find the probationers. What relief it was to find that they were batch mates! Thus ended the story of the perturbed lady who very soon got initiated into the ways of “ Officers under training” – learning to escape to the Board Room (so long as no visiting Board Member was in town), when sittings with babus in sections threatened to put one to sleep ; where to play table tennis during extended lunch hours, and how to see an occasional afternoon show in a nearby cinema and present an exhausted ‘hard worked probationer look’ before the Asst Commr in charge of training at close of the day. The training thereafter in Customs was very enjoyable with visits to the docks, ships, airports etc.


The field training in Central Excise was even more fun as it involved travel to new places –Dinhata Cooch Behar, Siliguri Darjeeling – for visits to Tobacco fields/Godowns, tea gardens jute factories as well as large factories like ICI’s paint manufacturing unit at Rishra. Coming to Mussoorie in February 1970 was sheer bliss after the rough and tough of West Bengal.


I must confess however that the 2 years training left me ill prepared to deal with the files when I was finally posted on regular duties and allotted a separate room and assigned a stenographer!! Never having had the luxury of someone taking down your words I was acutely self-conscious. Being confined to a table and chair in a small office for 7 hours was the other great bane of a young officer’s life. But what a long way one had travelled in these two years and how confident and comfortable one felt now!!






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