Joining hands for a strong border

In the interest of the nation’s security, the Centre should merge the Immigration and Customs departments.

Published: 07th March 2017 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th March 2017 08:28 AM   |  A+A-

Illustration: Amit Bandre

After 9/11, the major administrative reform in the US was the merger of the Immigration and Customs department. Different functions and jurisdictions of several border and revenue enforcement agencies were consolidated into the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Recently, the Australian government also merged both the Immigration and Customs departments and created a new agency called Australian Border Force.

The rationale behind the merger is that the passengers and organisations should deal with only one authority i.e. “one face at the border” or a “single agency at the border”.  The present Indian government, by merging the Plan and Non-Plan expenditure and Railway Budget with the Union Budget, has proved it is only concerned about efficiency and economy of the policy or projects. It is time for the Centre to take a decision on merging the Bureau of Immigration which is under the Ministry of Home Affairs with the Central Board of Excise and Customs (CBEC) which is under Ministry of Finance, for better border management.

The Centre, in the interest of nation’s security should take a bold step of merging the Immigration with the Customs and create a new agency called “Indian Border Force” or “Indian Border Protection Force” under the CBEC. This agency will be the first line of defence against individuals, smugglers, and mafia networks seeking to undermine the border control. The new agency should be supported by latest technologies and training should ensure that the workforce is capable, responsive and agile. The CBEC has mooted a proposal to replace the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) with a Customs Arms Unit at airports, shipping hubs and on high seas. This proposal should be put to action quickly. The Unit can be part of the new agency.

With respect to the passengers, they have to go through a cumbersome process at airports. They have to face three agencies—Immigration, Customs and finally CISF. The new agency can perform functions of all the three agencies to ensure a hassle-free experience for travellers. Uniformity should be maintained at both the international entry and exit points.

On the information technology front, the Bureau of Immigration developed “Immigration, Visa and Foreigners Registration & Tracking (IVFRT)” project. The objective of the project is to implement a secure and integrated service that facilitates legitimate travelers while strengthening security. Similarly, CBEC had developed the Indian Customs Advanced Passenger Information System (APIS) which acts as an electronic database of all passengers, crew and other airline staff entering the country. The APIS red flags suspicious passengers on the basis of their movement and other parameters and gives a lead to customs officials for follow-up. It has been developed on the lines of the Electronic Advance Passenger Information System used by the Customs and Border Protection of the US. It is also capable of handling information such as issuance of a red corner notice against wanted individuals and warrants issued by the Interpol and other international law enforcement agencies. Both the IVFRT and APIS were developed by the National Informatics Center (NIC) and the purpose of both the projects remains the same. The merger will easily avoid the duplication of such projects and stop the tax payer’s money from going into the drain.

As far as the administration is concerned, there is no dedicated cadre for the Bureau of Immigration. Most of the staff are on deputation basis from different agencies like state or Central Intelligence Bureau and para military forces among others. Recently the Centre announced it would hire nearly 2.8 lakh more staff out of which Customs, Excise and Service Tax department will get more than 41,000. Once the merger is done, the problem of staff crunch can be solved by allocating officers from the CBEC cadre and a small percentage of posts can be filled on a deputation basis to maintain the diversity.

If merged, the new agency can easily coordinate with efficient organisations like Customs Overseas Intelligence Network (COIN) which provides intelligence for facilitating seizure of offending goods, information regarding black money and commercial frauds and to detect evasion of Customs duty. The Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) is the apex intelligence organisation of the Indian Customs which has established a vast intelligence gathering network to prevent smuggling of fake Indian currency notes, gold, drugs and psychotropic substances and also deals with commercial frauds. It has been in the forefront of the drive against the violations of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, Montreal Protocol on substances that delete the ozone layer, Cartagena Protocol on bio safety and the Rotterdam Convention on certain hazardous chemicals and pesticides. In coordination with the CBEC, these three agencies can form a chain to protect the economic and environmental interests of the nation. Under the Ministry of Finance, uniformity of administration can be established at all airports and coordination of intelligence and investigative operations, compliance, detention and enforcement functions can be achieved.

Though the merger might create initial hiccups and cultural differences in the organisations, it has the potential for significant savings, optimal structure, and integrated activities both beyond and within border. Finally it not only benefits the passengers who face a single agency after their travel fatigue and jet lag but also strengthens the nation’s economic border.

(The author is Deputy Commissioner of Customs and Service Tax, Indian Revenue Service.


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