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Customs to address a need of the time
Rashid ul Ahsan Chowdhury

          THE internet and the world wide web (WWW) has now secured acceptance as the most vital means of communication and information dissemination. The growing use of the internet and the worldwide web implies that the Bangladesh Customs administration should without more ado implement a Bangladesh Customs worldwide website to cater to the need of the public domain, particularly for travellers and participants in international trade. Of course the National Board of Revenue (NBR) has a website of its own but it does not cater to the need of the general public and trade, particularly in respect of customs information. The only customs document available in this web site is the Baggage Rules and that too is not updated.
A web site information is important for the customs administration to facilitate the movement of goods and people through the customs. The people who are involved with international travel and entry/exit of goods through the customs chain should have access to customs regulatory information and should be able to disseminate that information. This will make the work of the customs administration trouble free and transparent and bring accountability in the work of the customs officials. Unveiled information will always lead to many questions with resultant solutions. It will also make it cost-effective for the government to make available all the customs information on the net, instead of circulating information through publication, which are so much sought after by the concerned public. Further, the easily accessible manner to obtain that information will speed up trade and trade related activities.
The basic information which should be provided on the customs website must cater to the need of travellers as well as traders. The web site should start with a general overview of the customs administration, its administrative structure, location of the customs offices, name and designation of all its officials, its activities and mission goals. This information should be followed by information for travellers on customs matters. Most travellers have particular eye on duty free allowances and therefore the web site must contain comprehensive details of duty free allowances for passengers. Details of duty-free allowances should cover all products, including quantities and maximum values. Duty-free privileges are always given to passengers under certain conditions. These conditions such as origin of journey, length of stay, the age of the traveller etc., should also be included in the web site. In some cases different allowances are available depending upon the nature of travel and the nature of passport and these differences should also be clearly indicated.
A number of goods are either prohibited or restricted for importation into Bangladesh. These kinds of goods should be identified and clearly listed in the web site. Such goods, for example, may include arms and ammunition, alcohol, gold in bullion, harmful drugs, large quantity of commercial and electronic items, special kinds of plants etc. In addition to listing such goods, the website should also elaborate penalties for violation of legislation in this regard At present dual channel system for passenger clearance are in operation at three airports in Bangladesh. The website should contain comprehensive details of how the dual channel system works at airports and how passengers should declare goods to customs on arrival. This explanation should also include examples of customs forms to be completed by passengers. A complete set of information should be laid out in the web site demonstrating the penalties a passenger will incur in case he or she breeches the law purposefully.
Travellers always seek to contact customs officers to make many enquiries with regard to customs rules and regulations. The website should therefore contain a contact point by means of an e-mail address which will enable the public to make specific enquiries with regard to customs formalities. In addition, the web site should have information on additional customs contact points where complaints can be lodges against high handed activities of customs officials. The website should also provide links to other related government websites such as immigration, police, tourism, agriculture etc., to enable travellers acquire complete information on all regulatory requirements upon arrival in the country.
Tourism is increasingly becoming an important part of the economy of the country. In addition, businessmen, donor officials, NGO workers frequently travel to Bangladesh. A significant number of such visitors do not understand the native language of the country. The customs administration should therefore have information available for travellers in a number of other languages. Official publications, brochures etc., should be made available in the website for access by the public and for downloading or ordering. The format of such documents should be arranged in such a way that they are easily accessible and always available for downloading.
In order to provide information to the traders, the website should explain in a comprehensive manner the various customs procedures and the legislations under which the customs operate. This overview should in fact be considered as a broad instruction to customs business. In addition, the website should provide links through which the public will get access to more detailed explanations of particular procedures or sections of various related acts.
A basic requisite for a customs website would be to place the text of the national legislation (the Customs Act) covering international trade on the site. As far as possible, the legislation should not be placed in plain text without any hypertext links. To make the text more useful to traders, it is important that the Bangladesh Customs administration establish, where possible, hypertext links to important references throughout the body of the document.
To assist traders amid business, basic information on tariff and duty rates for various classes of goods should be made obtainable on the website. If it is possible, a complete electronic version of the national tariff should be placed on the site. The traders and business will be much benefited through direct access to the electronic version of the national tariff which, in turn, will allow them to take crucial decisions promptly.
However, if it is not possible to place an electronic version on the website, at the least a copy of the paper version of the tariff should be made available in a "PDF" (portable document format). This would permit the trader to download the document for viewing and printing only. A list of official currency rates of exchange for customs purposes should be a basic element included on the website. The website should focus in detail prohibited or restricted goods and goods covered by quota and if there are other special prohibitions or restrictions imposed by the government from time to time. If there are special conditions for the importation or exportation of such goods, that too should be narrated.
Filling up a customs declaration form is a tricky matter. A user guide on how to complete a customs declaration (bill of entry/export) will be most useful to traders and will improves the quality of data input to customs systems. The customs administration of Bangladesh already has this type of guide in paper form. The Customs administration should therefore convert this guide into a format that could be placed on the web, and such a training guide should be developed into a comprehensive interactive programme.
Information is always sought after by traders on classification issues. All official classification decisions therefore should be made available on the customs website. This will reduce the need of the traders to directly contact customs officials for information. A comprehensive set of information should be given indicating what penalties a trader should expect to receive if caught deliberately breaking the law. As with the information for travellers, contact details (including e-mail address) for customs officials dealing with specific issues should be given.
It is important that traders have access to other trade related offices in addition to the customs. Therefore, links to such other websites as the Ministries of Commerce, Finance, Agriculture, Statistics and the national Chamber of Commerce should be included. Access to various official publications such as the annual national budget, SROs' in operation, rules and regulations in force etc., should be made available for downloading or ordering through the website. Consideration should be given to the format used for documents being made available for downloading.
The information that is being made available to traders and travellers may become static, i.e. the readers can receive information and print it, but generally cannot integrate it into their own applications. The customs administration should develop interactive applications that can be used either by external clients or internal staff members.
In order to be a part in the nation-building process and facilitate the international transport of goods and travel and tourism, the customs administration of Bangladesh must open up all its cards of activities to the general public.
The customs is a client-oriented service and, therefore, one of its prime considerations should be to cater to the need of the public and trade. Adopting a hush-hush attitude with regard to its activities only jeopardise the interest of the state and the clients which the administration is supposed to serve. A closed door approach will mean encouraging corruption and allowing arbitrary use of discretionary powers. Such an attitude will make the customs officials unanswerable for their deeds. Surely, the National Board of Revenue does not want to create for the customs such a snail-like image. One important way to open up the customs is to inaugurate a website detailing its role, activities and mission goals. Such a step will not only heighten the image of the customs administration but will also help to encourage transparency and accountability in the service and facilitate trade, travel and tourism.
The writer is Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the World Customs Organisation, Brussels, Belgium


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