I first began getting book parcels from overseas in the early 1980s. I was then doing a doctorate in Kolkata, and some of the books I needed for my research were unavailable in India. So I got an uncle in the United States to post them to me.
In the late 1980s I began travelling abroad myself. On every trip, I would buy loads of books and go to the nearest post office, where I would make them up into separate parcels of two or three books each. (I did not send them in a single large carton so as not to burden the postman, who, even in upmarket Bangalore, was constrained to deliver letters and parcels by cycle). Later, when credit cards became available, I would pay for the courier at the bookstore itself and have them ship the books I bought. Still later, when the Internet arrived, I would order out-of-print books from the wonderful site www.abebooks.com, pay with my credit card, and wait for them to come home to me in Bangalore.
Between 1987 (when I first went abroad) and 2016, I must have posted, or had posted to myself, several hundred parcels of books. All except one or two reached Bangalore safely. Apart from books from overseas that I myself bought, I also received many books sent to me by publishers and by fellow scholars. Every few years, large cartons from overseas also safely arrived by courier, these containing complimentary copies of my own books, published in the United Kingdom or the United States.
For the last couple of years, however, the process has become unbelievably complex. If a publisher sends me a complimentary copy of a book of their own accord, or because I had written a blurb or a referee’s report for it, more likely than not it is held up at Customs. I am asked to provide various kinds of identity proof and fill in several forms before it can be released. Even if the first package is carried by, say, DHL, when DHL are conveying another package for me from overseas one has to fill out all the forms again, although one’s KYC details are already with the company and with Customs.
Apart from these tedious hold-ups, sometimes an arbitrary charge is levied on a book package as well. Last year, when the Oxford University Press posted me an unpublished manuscript from the UK for review, the authorities in Bangalore told me I had to pay:
CUSTOMS DUTY (reimbursement of cost) `570.32 IGST (reimbursement of cost) `1,132.32 ED CESS (reimbursement of cost) `11.41 SHE CESS (reimbursement of cost) `5.70 9967-BONDED STORAGE `500.00, 9967-HANDLING FEE `500.00 CGST @ 9% 90.00, SGST @ 9% 90.00 TOTAL `2,899.75
I took the alternative route of asking the OUP to mail me a pdf of the manuscript instead.
I have faced such petty harassment for some time, and am prompted to complain now in public only because there seem to be many fellow sufferers. Thus the senior journalist Siddharth Bhatia recently tweeted: ‘Someone from overseas (don’t know who) has sent me a book and to get it, I must give a letter to @FedExIndia, fill a KYC form and mail my Aadhar card. Why? Customs, they say, but no idea under which provision. What’s up?’
After I chipped in on Twitter with my own troubles, many other people did so as well. One writer said she had to go through Customs to clear a book manuscript by a friend. Others said they had to fill in multiple forms to variously have released jeans, baseball caps, and coffee powder for their personal use. The most remarkable comment was as follows: “I had to fill KYC form and provide my Aadhaar to receive rakhi from my sister who lives outside India.”
Surely our Customs have the technology to discriminate between bombs on the one hand and books and rakhis on the other? Can they not have every package scanned, and set free without any paperwork at all those that are manifestly not dangerous in any way? Why this wanton harassment of law-abiding (and taxpaying) citizens? From 1982, when the first book packet from overseas came to me, until 2016, when this new Inspector raj came into being, I faced no such problem, and nor did my fellow citizens. They could import or have sent to them as gifts, books, magazines, CDs and the like without any hassle at all.
Note that I speak here of items for personal use only. From entrepreneurs in Bangalore I often hear horror stories of shipments held up for weeks of items necessary for their business. That is bad enough, but surely putting impediments to individual gift packages is even worse. At first, I used to joke that these new restrictions were further proof that this was the most anti-intellectual government we had ever had. But this is no joking matter; for it happens so regularly to so many other people, and is by no means restricted to books alone.
The impediments placed by the current Customs regime on the free movement of individual packets containing small, low-worth items of personal use is extremely irritating. Especially when, at the same time, colossal amounts of money looted from our public sector banks is being freely relocated abroad. Law-abding citizens committed to staying and living in this country cannot have a single book (or rakhi!) delivered to their homes without climbing through multiple hoops. On the other hand, our better connected countrymen can have billions of rupees shipped out illegally before fleeing India themselves.