When you land in Hyderabad, after immigration your hand-baggage is passed through a scanner. The intent here – unlike the scanning that happens during security-checks – is to identify items on which customs duty can be charged. When my turn came, the official appeared to raise his eyebrows a little. “Do you have a camera there, with a long lens?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied. “I have an SLR”. He took my customs declaration form and scribbled something on the reverse.
After gathering my suitcase from the belt I tried to pass through the ‘Green channel’ but was stopped by the person at the exit. He asked for my customs form, flipped it over, and then directed me towards “counter 2” at the ‘Red Channel’. The man at the counter took the form, and asked me to open my bag and take out the camera.
“How much does it cost?” he asked.
I thought for a while, and then said: “It is an old model I bought three years ago. It would now probably cost about fifteen thousand rupees.”
“What about the lens? The lenses are quite expensive, isn’t it?”
“It is not a zoom lens, so it wasn’t very expensive. I paid a hundred Euros for it. But why are you asking all this? These are my personal belongings, and I always carry them when I come to India. In fact, I’ve carried it with me on my last three trips to India.”
“Did you pay duty on any one of those trips?” he asked.
“Then you should pay duty once,” he said, shaking his head. “Pay duty once, sir, then it will all be fine.”
“But look this is unfair!” I protested. “The form says I can carry Rs.25,000/- worth of items, and I’m not carrying so much.”
“What is in the suitcase?”
“Some chocolates and clothes.”
“What about your mobile? Show me your mobile, please.”
I took the mobile – a Sony Ericsson – out of my pocket and gave it to him.
“How much does this cost?”
He looked up at me.
“I took it with a two year contract, and with such contracts some models of mobile phones come free of cost. This was one of them.” I explained.
“Ok, so how much can you give me?” he asked, without meeting my eyes.
This was an explicit request for a bribe. I thought about it for a while. If they checked all my belongings, I could be in trouble. The camera was worth much more than the price I had mentioned, and I was also carrying my iPod.
“I can give you 500 rupees. But this is very unfair, let me tell you.”
He gave a toothy smile, and shook his head. Perhaps he thought my offer too small?
“All that I am carrying are my personal belongings. I don’t think you can charge duty for that.” I repeated, although I wasn’t too sure of what “personal belongings” were allowed.
“It’s okay, sir,” he said, and handed my the customs form after putting his signature there.
I picked up my bags and walked out through the ‘Green Channel’. Just when I came outside the airport building, I heard someone calling me from behind – I turned around to find the customs officer walking towards me.
“You’ve left your mobile at the counter, sir,” he said. “Please come and collect it.”
He wasn’t carrying the mobile with him, and the reason became clear soon. “You could give me that five hundred now, sir.” he said. I looked a bit surprised at this turn of stance, so he added, with a sheepish grin: “If that is okay with you.”
He had my mobile, and I wanted to get out of that place; I relented. He pocketed the five-hundred rupee note in a flash and walked back inside, picked up my mobile from his counter and gave it back to me.
Back home, I decided to check the customs rules (a subject I had been blissfully ignorant of upto now, thanks to the smooth passages through the ‘Green Channel’ all these years). After digging through parts of the Central Board of Excise and Customs website, I found a page dedicated towards the customs duties applicable to different categories of passengers. In summary, it said that for ‘tourists’, articles allowed free of duty include:
1. Used ‘personal effects’ and travel souvenirs, if: (a) These goods are for personal use of the tourist, and (b) These goods, other than those consumed during the stay in India, are re-exported when the tourist leaves India for a foreign destination. [The phrase ‘personal effects’ had a link that did not work]
2. Duty free allowances applicable to Indian Residents.
The second point referred to another section of the document, which mentioned that “Used personal effects (excluding jewellery) required for satisfying daily necessities of life” are duty free. What those “daily necessities” could be was open to interpretation.
This showed that I could carry with me any amount of ‘personal effects’ as long I declared them as artifacts I would carry back to where I came from. However, my experiences with immigration and customs officials on my way out of the country did not involve anyone checking my passport to see if I had declared some goods on my way in. So it wasn’t a foolproof system. Nevertheless, with all this homework done, I could now prevent myself from being bulldozed by a customs official. (He must have had quite a laugh about “these gullible rich types who live abroad”).
If you are a regular follower of this blog, you’d perhaps be wondering how all this could have happened when the Wife was around. You see, she isn’t with me on this trip to India – she intends to visit her parents in the U.S. during the same period – and when I narrated the incident on the phone later that evening she was quick to remark that this would have never happened had she been there. To her, it is not about knowing the rules – it is about showing that you know them.