THOOTHUKUDI: Sleuths of the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) are investigating the alleged involvement of customs officials in the case of smuggling 65 tonnes of areca nuts concealed in cotton rags. This comes after the arrest of a customs broker on Tuesday.
Customs broker Ravikumar, alias Ravi Bagadur, who is also the proprietor of M/s Abi Shipping and Logistix Pvt Ltd, was arrested on charges of smuggling areca nuts concealed in cotton rags from Indonesia to Thoothukudi via the VO Chidambaranar port. He was accused of clearing the consignment of cotton rags and evading customs duty to the tune of `4 crore. The DRI sleuths seized over 65 tonnes of areca nut, worth `4 crore, stuffed in four 40-feet containers, said sources.
Preliminary investigation revealed Ravikumar could have been assisted by customs officials. He has been in the shipping field for over 15 years and predominantly imported cotton rags. For a customs broker to smuggle areca nuts alone without the connivance of customs officials is what raised questions during the investigation, said an official. "Investigation about the involvement of customs officials, and financial transactions is under progress. The accused persons are under DRI radar", the official added.
Imported areca nuts are levied with 100% customs duty, except consignments from Sri Lanka, in line with the Indo-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (ISFTA). According to sources, Indonesia is a leading producer of areca nut. The importers purchase the areca nut consignments from Indonesia and get an origin certificate from Sri Lanka through touts, to evade import duty, the source added.
A recent notification from the Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs fixed the tariff for one tonne of areca nut at `6.71 lakh (8,068 US dollars). "Since the cost of the product almost doubles when it is imported through proper channels, some crooked importers try to hoodwink the authorities. However, this can not be achieved without the help of a customs official," said an industry source.
Another source said that there have been occasions when customs officials approached customs house agents to help import areca nuts with fake Sri Lankan-origin certificates. The officials even threaten customs brokers to stop clearing the consignments of their clients and delay them, who eventually end up paying demurrage fees, the customs broker added.