In totality life has been kind and without trying to be overmodest, I must admit that my journey in the Customs department lasting for about 35 years (1977 to 2012) has been extremely enriching and I cherish the fond memories especially from my tenures in Rummaging section [1978-1983] and Air Intelligence Unit (AIU) [1989-1991]. At a young age with one’s enthusiasm at its peak, it was very exciting and adventurous to do patrolling in the high seas in speed boats and rummage ships of different countries arriving from various ports. There were a few filmy style encounters where smugglers boats were given a hot chase and intercepted. At times during chase, rounds were fired in the air to warn the boats to surrender.
Smuggling in the 70’s and 80’s was very conventional. Imported consumer goods were smuggled in Arab dhows mainly arriving from Gulf countries, and ships arriving from West Asia, Gulf, Far East, China, etc. We Indians had a big craze for electronic items such as 2-in-1, watches, VCRs, VCPs, Sony audio and video cassettes, perfumes, imported cigarettes 555, Dunhill, terelene clothes and sarees. Tourism to Singapore flourished with the main purpose of shopping imported stuff and eventually selling it in India to cover up the to and fro air fares and make some profit. Today economy has opened up and imported goods are freely available in the market. However, Gold has always remained a favorite commodity smuggled into India and narcotic drugs, depending on the kind of stuff, smuggled in and out of India mainly through air route because the transaction has to be fast. Smuggling today is more sophisticated and white collar.
It needs to be mentioned that rummaging duties were extremely tough and officers physically fit could only sustain. Suspected ships were boarded mid sea immediately upon arrival climbing 25 to 50 steps of the ship’s pilot ladder. It could be either day time or night. It was a great risk to life especially during monsoon when the sea is very furious. A minor error while boarding or alighting could endanger life and one may get carried away into the rough sea. This happened when one rummaging officer Mr. M.R. Sulanke slipped one step of pilot ladder while alighting from a ship into our speed boat and although he was an ace swimmer, he struggled for about half an hour in the choppy sea before he succeeded to catch hold of a lifebuoy thrown by our speed boat crew to rescue him. In yet another incident late Shri Dayashankar, then AC / Rummaging when newly joined, skipped and fell into the sea while crossing over boats on reaching mole station, Ballard Pier jetty. In a matter of seconds he was pulled out by our officer Shri Nestor Fernandez, who happened to be just following him.
I have tried to locate some outstanding seizures from my personal diary and shall list a few cases in nutshell below. I have actively participated in those seizures and all cases are a result of team hard work. Seizures are not by luck or chance. Perhaps, luck factor may be contributing 10%. Seizures are a result of dedicated hard work, sharp observation, profiling, relentless efforts, skill, judgment, developing intelligence / informers and above all devotion to duty. The senior officers’ motivation and support also plays a great role. The liberal reward policy scheme introduced by the Government in 1989 and its effective implementation by the Commissioners also proved a great morale boost and encouragement to the officers.
During my tenure in Rummaging section there were around 22 rummaging officers, 4 sepoys headed by 1 Superintendent and at a later stage 2 Supdts. The rummaging officers duties were on rotation- 2 officers for patrolling during daytime, another 2 officers during night shift (6pm to 6am), search party of about 10 officers, 2 to 4 officers always on guard / surveillance duties and 3 officers day duty for administrative work in RSR office, Ballard Pier, Docks. The uniform of rummaging officers was a boiler suit, though not prescribed but as a matter of choice out of compulsion because the nature of the job involved searching cargo holds, opening empty tanks in ships, searching steering room, gear rooms life boats and such other vulnerable places looking for concealed smuggled goods.
Earlier the main mode of travel for Haj was sea route. Several passenger ships, to name a few: Akbar, Noorjahen, Dwarka, Al-Loulouah, Nancowry ferried between Mumbai Port and Jeddah. Gradually the sea route was discontinued and the last ship M.V. Akbar used on the route, was scrapped in 1995.
It was on 15th June 1979, the rummaging search party boarded M.V. Al-Loulouah, Kuwaiti ship in stream to search the ship. There was some vague information about contraband goods on board but no clue as to where. The ship had sailed a week back with 100 passengers and cargo from Mumbai port and after unloading, returned to stream in the Mumbai harbor. The search continued till late evening with no results. The Rummaging officer i/c called off the day and posted 2 officers on night guard duty on board the ship to continue the search the following day. The ship was rummaged with the best of efforts and by evening the officers had almost given up and came to the ships recreation room to relax for some time. During chit-chat, one officer Shri P.M. Taide probably had an intuition and he banged the false ceiling of the recreation room with his tool kit and felt some unusual sound. An opening was created in the false ceiling. Soon after some packages were sighted, the ships lights went off. The Chief Engineer of the ship was contacted and lights were restored. Search resulted in the recovery of five suitcases from the top of the ceiling and found to contain 3900 wrist watches of Fuji make, 22 car stereos. The fancy watches, valued at Rs. 14 lakhs were seized as unclaimed as no one came forward to claim the goods. This was one of the biggest seizures in that year. The seizure operation was carried out Officers S/Shri P.M. Taide, Ashwani Kumar, J.S. Sanghvi, M. A. Andrade, J.V. Bhide and others. The Indian Express newspaper carried the seizure news in its column along with a photograph of senior officers inspecting the watches on 20th June 1979. (Ref. F. No. S/14-4-564/79)
In yet another interesting case, Rummaging officer Shri N.M. Desai and I were posted for night harbor patrolling duties on 20th November, 1981. We left mole station in our patrolling boat at about 8 pm and carried out patrolling the entire night across the harbor looking for any suspicious movement. Early morning 21st November at about 5am, when it was still dark, we noticed a fishing boat speeding away in the Mumbai harbor without navigation lights. This aroused our suspicion and a hot chase was given. The occupants of the mechanized craft, sensing the customs after them, sped to the nearest point towards Sunder Nagri, Sassoon Docks. After trying to dodge the customs they jumped off the craft and disappeared in the darkness. The craft was grounded. As we were unable to take our large size patrolling boat close to the grounded craft, we and 3 of our crew got into the cold water and swam to the grounded craft, refloated it and brought it to mole station. En-route we conveyed the incident on walkie-talkie to our RSR office for support.
On reaching mole station at about 8am, the craft was emptied and the huge packages were manually carried by the staff to our RSR office on the second floor manually by stairs since there was no lift. The packages containing radio cassette recorders, textile and watches were seized under cover of Panchnama. The goods valued at Rs. 8.70 lakhs and the craft, then valued at Rs. 50,000 were seized. (Ref.F.No.S/14-4-1208/81). The seizure news appeared in the columns of The Times of India newspaper on 26th November, 1981.
Smuggling of silver out of India: During the period 1980 to 1984 smuggling of silver out of India was rampant due to the lucrative price difference. On the basis of intelligence received by one of our officer, the rummaging party boarded a ship M.V. Maldive Carrier berthed at Princess & Victoria Docks, just before it was about to sail with export cargo on 2nd January, 1980. Search of the ship resulted in the recovery of several silver ingots, each weighing between 30 to 33 Kgs. from the engine room, steering room, gear room, store rooms, pantry, etc. The silver ingots were totally valued at Rs. 53,82,835. The contraband silver was seized. The ship was also seized and detained for investigations. (Ref.F.No. S/14-5-4/80)
Earlier there was a huge waiting time, approximately one month, before the ship could be allotted a berth in the Docks at the Mumbai port. The ships on arrival would anchor in the outer anchorage and later brought in the inner anchorage before she was allotted a berth in the Docks. Conventional cranes were used and gangs were deployed for unloading and loading the cargo which took about 2 weeks in port. Container ships were just introduced. It was a common practice for the rummaging team to carefully study the arrival program of the ships arriving Mumbai and suspected vessels were boarded at Bombay Floating Light (BFL) area, outer anchorage immediately on arrival. On many occasions, it was disappointing but otherwise quite a spectacular scene to notice smuggled goods thrown overboard by ships’ crew. Some crew on sighting the Customs rummaging boat would jettison unaccounted goods (electronic goods, liquor bottles, etc.) into the sea and we were helpless most of time in high seas. On one such occasion, just after we boarded a ship M.V. Big Orange in outer anchorage on 25.02.1982, a big thud was heard at the rear of the ship due a huge package being thrown overboard. One of our officers noticed and alerted the rummaging team. Immediately officer Shri S. V. Dandekar removed his boiler suit and jumped into the sea at a great risk of life from a height of about 30 feet and was lucky enough to retrieve the package since it was still afloat. The package was brought on board the ship and found to contain watches valued at Rs. 2,61,000. The goods were seized under cover of panchnama. (Ref. F. No. S/14-4-18/82)
Dramatic seizure of smuggled goods: Customs harbor patrol officers Mr. Talwinder Singh and N.M. Desai on patrolling boat “Jijamata”, on 27/28th May, 1983 night duty, sighted a fishing vessel moving without navigational lights between the BFL and Karanja hill at about 2 am. On being challenged, the vessel tried to escape. The customs officials fired several rounds in the air and finally intercepted the vessel off the shore of BPT quarters at Colaba. The crew jumped into the sea leaving their trawler moving towards the rocky shore. The customs officers and crew, at great personal risk, jumped aboard the trawler and brought it to stop.
While proceeding towards Mole station with the haul, the vigilant officers noticed another vessel off Sassoon Dock. Another chase ensued and the crew of the second vessel also resorted to a similar course of action and abandoned the craft. The total haul consisted of 67 VCRs, a television, 360 cassette recorders, 9,275 yards of polyester dress material and 36,317 wrist watches of Citizen, Ricoh, Nino and Alba Quartz brands. The two vessels were also impounded. The contraband goods worth over 1 crore, was the biggest seizure of its kind during the last 10 years then. This seizure news was prominently published by the Indian Express on 31st May, 1983. (Ref. F. No. S/14-4-489/83)
In my entire tenure of posting in RSR section for 6 years, we boarded ships of various nationalities and flags for rummaging, incidentally getting an opportunity to relish food and beverages of different countries. On the flip side, there were tough times when guarding officer on board a suspected ship in stream would get stuck up for 2 to 4 days and had to survive on bread and butter or rice and pickle. During monsoon it was natural that may a times sea would turn very stormy. The port authorities would hoist signal no. 5, a warning to launches and fishing boats not to venture out into the sea. The guarding officer had no option but to wait for the relieving officer. On certain ships vegetables were not available but only meat. Ships with Chinese or Philippines crew it was uncertain what meat would be served because they eat all kinds of meat. Philippinos ‘love’ dogs. It was a gossip those days that whenever a ship with Philippines crew on board was berthed in the Docks, the stray dogs loitering in the port would vanish. Apologies, have no intention to malign any nationality.
Hardly once or twice we boarded Japanese and Russian ships since we had no reasons to doubt about the crew indulging in smuggling activities. Once we randomly selected a Japanese ship for search. It needs to be mentioned that the Japanese crew were very courteous and humble. The hospitality extended by them cannot be forgotten. Japanese are known for their loyalty towards their nation.
It was my privilege to work with a wonderful team of rummaging officers. To name a few: S/ Shri A.A. Khan, B.A. D’mello, M.A. Koshy, J.S.Sanghvi, S.A. Qadri, John Abraham, U.O. Patil, M.A. Andrade, A.L.Banga, N.M. Desai, S. D. Parvi, S.V. Dandekar, C.D. Mayekar, P.K.Lawrence, R.F. Athaide, I.H.T. Kate, J. V. Bhide, S.N. Kale, S.S. Gill, Sepoys Maruti, Shankar and Jadhav.
The air smuggling scenario was different. Watches, electronic goods and gold were commonly smuggled items into India. Passengers would normally smuggle gold by concealing in electronic items and on person, either tied to waist, legs, hidden in shoes, undergarments, false wigs and to the extent sometimes hidden in rectum. Metal detecting devices and X-ray machines are great support in detection of gold. Smuggling of gold particularly was also rampant by concealing gold bars in hatches, toilets, below seats and cargo holds of aircrafts. Goods are left hidden to be removed eventually by the counterpart ground airlines staff of the gang. Another safe place for removing concealed gold is when the aircraft goes for maintenance checks / repairs in hangers.
Narcotics drugs are various categories. The most common one “heroin” is smuggled out of India to Europe and USA. Smuggling of Cocaine, which originates from South America, is smuggled into India using various modus operandi. It is the drug of the elite class. Drugs are trafficked through courier parcels, postal parcels, air cargo parcels concealed in cosmetics, utensils, books, clothing, etc. and carried on person. Drugs fetch a very huge margin of profit and that is one main reason of smuggling. Carriers, generally Africans (Nigeria nationals) resort to carry drugs either cleverly concealed in baggage, but more frequently at a great risk to life on person in stomach in order to escape detection by enforcement agencies. Drug powder packed in rubber polythene capsules similar to egg shaped balls are swallowed 3 hours before the flight on an empty stomach sipping little orange juice or water and on completion of flight purged out. 70 to 80 or more polythene wrapped capsules are reported swallowed normally. One capsule gets punctured in the stomach means instant death. NDPS Act is the harsh law and attracts 10 years of imprisonment.
During my tenure in the Air Intelligence Unit (AIU) at the Mumbai International Airport during the period 1989 to 1991, there were several cases detected by me and my colleague officers. In one significant case, we officers boarded an Air India aircraft immediately on its arrival from Dubai on 4th January 1990 at about 00.30 am. The officers thoroughly rummaged the aircraft and looked for all possible places of concealment. It was probably my intuition that I decided to search the cargo hold where the checked-in baggage of the passengers is kept. Soon after the baggage was offloaded, I discretely searched the place with the help of a torch and extended mirror. I managed to move the mirror between the buffer paddings and the wall of the aircraft and thereupon noticed a faint reflection of a string. Finding it suspicious, I moved ahead to retrieve a heavy black belt. The team was informed about the finding and the belt was brought to the AIU office and found to contain 120 gold bars then valued at Rs. 46 lakhs. Colleague officers S/Shri U.O. Patil, D. K. Vohra, S.T. Badkar, N.D. Gaokar and others participated in the seizure operation under the supervision of Supdt. D. P. Kanade. The seizure news appeared in the Times of India on 06.01.1990. (Ref. F. No. SD/INT/AIU/04/90)
In another incident of a similar nature, our ‘C’ Batch AIU officers boarded an Air India flight AI- 102 which had arrived from New York via London on 9th October, 1989 early morning at about 1am. Acting on a tip-off received by I.O. Shri S.T. Badkar, we rummaged the rear toilets of the aircraft and in one of the toilets found gold bars concealed in two jackets. The gold bars weighing 13.992 Kgs., valued at Rs. 44.77 lakhs were seized. (Ref. F.No.SD/INT/AIU/500/89) Seizure news appeared in The Times of India dated 10.10.1989 at page no.5.
Another novel modus operandi adopted for smuggling was that a carrier arriving from abroad would leave his hand bag containing contraband goods in the transit lounge of the airport to be eventually picked up by his fellow friend travelling on a domestic route since domestic passengers are not be required to undergo Customs checks. On 16th July, 1989 night shift, I received a tip-off that a passenger would indulge in this kind of activity. I kept a vigil and early morning at about 3am I noticed a bag lying unattended under a seat in the transit lounge. After keeping surveillance for sufficient time when no one came to pick the bag, we brought it to our AIU office and it was found to contain ICs and 4 gold bars collectively valued at Rs. 18 lakhs. The goods were seized as unclaimed under panchnama. (Ref: F. No. SD/INT/AIU/322/89)
Another significant seizure of gold was by our batch of officers on two consecutive nights on 28th and 29th October 1989 made on the basis of specific information received by Officer Shri S. T. Badkar. It was Diwali festival and probably the smuggling gang wanted to take advantage of the opportunity believing that customs AIU officers either on leave or in Diwali festive mood. But the dedicated Customs officers were vigilant and search of the Air India aircrafts which had arrived from Dubai, resulted in the recovery of 120 gold bars concealed in the toilets of the aircrafts. The gold bars wrapped in cloth belts were hidden inside the commode and officers used gloves to retrieve it very skillfully. The total seizure value of the 240 gold bars, each of 10 tolas of 99.999 purity was Rs. 89 Lakhs then. The seizures were our Diwali celebrations on those two nights. The Commissioner Airport Shri K.P. Singh sanctioned rewards to the staff very liberally. (Case File Nos. SD/INT/AIU/589/89 and SD/INT/AIU/591/89)
Drug seizure: Three Nigerian nationals, 2 gents and 1 lady, all more than 6 feet tall, strong built were noticed standing in queue in departure hall of the airport before the Ethiopian airlines counter for collection of boarding pass. Our officer Shri Rohekar with his sniffer dog “Hero”, spotted them and on enquiry found that they had neither any checked-in baggage nor hand baggage. He felt suspicious. Moreover, the dog was upset and kept barking on those passengers indicating possession of drugs. The 3 were brought to AIU office and their personal search yielded no results. But with the sniffer dog having given positive signals, we approached the Court and sought Magistrate’s permission to take the passengers to St. George Hospital for X-Ray. All this while, the 3 kept denying until the X-ray report indicated presence of numerous foreign bodies in their stomach.
Egg-shaped polythene wrapped capsules of drug heroin in stomach
These 3 were escorted back to our AIU office under strict bandobust by a team of about 8 officers because they were tough built to handle. They were fed with food and soft drinks to facilitate early purge of the swallowed stuff. Under supervision- difficult to describe, they frequented the bathrooms and emptied their stomach and each of them extracted 90, 98 and 105 capsules. They were made cut open the capsules which were found to contain drug heroin, collectively weighing about 4.8 Kgs, valued in crores in the international market. The drug was seized. Recording their statements was a big challenge because of language issue. Interpreter was requested from the airlines. It may be mentioned that many Nigerians overstay their visa and are well conversant with the local languages, but when apprehended they behave ignorant and arrogant. They have been found to be indulging in various kinds of commercial frauds as well. Anyways, lest the topic gets deviated.
Seizures formalities had to be completed very meticulously as per the provisions of the NDPS Act. The passengers were arrested and produced at the CMM Court before the Magistrate, who remanded them to judicial custody. The entire operation of this seizure lasted for around 50 hours and only after completion our ‘C’ batch officers could go home.
In AIU, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with brilliant and dedicated officers S/Shri Satish Vichare, U.O. Patil, N.D. Gaokar, Dinesh Vohra, S.T. Badkar, Dwarka Prasad and others. During that period there were many spectacular seizure cases made by other AIU batches also. Names of few stalwart officers: S/Shri P.M.B. Nair, B.L. Gautam, Adhikari, B.N.Mishra.
Drawback fraud: During my tenure in CIU for two years 2000 and 2001, I worked as Supdt. with a dedicated team of talented officers S/ Shri Jenson Colaco, S.R. Adate and Anil Gandi under DC Shri Ravindranath. We investigated cases of fraudulent drawback claim of Rs. 25 crores perpetrated at the Air Cargo Complex by tainted exporters of garments. Several arrests were made and licenses of 5 CHAs who worked hand in glove with the fraud exporters were suspended by the Commissioner. The investigations were appreciated by the Commissioner (G) Shri Ramesh Ramchandran and CBIC Member (Cus.) gave us commendation certificates.
Light dues on deck cargo: While I was posted in Container Cell, New Custom House in year 2007, out of interest I studied the mechanism of collection of light-dues from ships arriving from foreign ports to India. The study found that shipping companies operating container ships were evading paying almost 50% light-dues to what was legitimately due to the Government. I made a detailed 5 page report and met Commissioner (G) Shri R.K. Mahajan and submitted the report and explained him the entire matter. The Light House Act, 1927 empowers the Customs to collect Light-dues which are later remitted to the office of the Directorate General of Lighthouses and Lightships, (D.G.L.L.) In India, Light-dues are levied on ships that are engaged in international trade. Light Houses serve as an aid to navigation and pilotage at sea. Light Houses have been put up by the Government along the coast for assisting ships in navigation and to help the ships in steering clear of danger. These Light Houses are provided, maintained and controlled by the D.G.L.L. Noida. Light dues are charged @ Rs. 8/- per tonnage.
In maritime usage “tonnage” specifically refers to a calculation of the volume or cargo volume of a ship. Net Registered Tonnage (NRT) represents the volume of the cargo carrying capacity of a Ship. The Light House Act 1927 provides that the light dues are payable on a ship’s tonnage including the tonnage of any space being utilized for carrying cargo. It was found that shipping companies were paying the dues on the registered net tonnage of the ship and avoided paying light-dues on the containers carried over the deck. Almost 50% to 60% of the cargo is carried by container ships as deck cargo.
Convinced by my report and explanation, Commissioner (G) came out with a Public Notice No. 52/07 dated 30.11.2007 drawing the attention of the shipping companies to pay light –dues as per the L.H. Act, 1927. Similar Public Notices were issued in other Indian ports. JNCH issued P.N. No. 09/2008 dated 17.01.2008.
Soon after the Public Notices were introduced the Mumbai and Nhava Sheva Ship Agent Association (MANSA)) opposed the implementation of the Customs Notices on frivolous grounds that the notices are not applicable to Container ships. MANSA officials met the Commissioner and gave a strong written representation opposing the Public Notices. In order to settle all doubts, it was decided to refer the matter to the Office of the Director General Shipping for their expert opinion. The arguments advanced by MANSA did not hold water. The Office of D.G Shipping concurred with the stand taken by the Customs and held that Customs have properly interpreted the Act.
The Public Notices issued by the Department were implemented and it had a great impact at Nhava Sheva port due to large number of container vessels calling at JNPT. The light-dues collection at Nhava Sheva rose from Rs. 16 crores to 35 crores in year 2008. Of course the revenue went into DGLL kitty.
I feel delighted and honored to have worked with the Customs department and carry some wonderful memories.