Even running with almost a half of required manpower, Chattogram Custom House has proved its efficiency during the pandemic time; its revenue earnings in 11 months of the outgoing fiscal year exceeded the full-year earnings of the past fiscal year.
The country's largest customs station collected Tk44,756 crore in the July-May period of this fiscal year – up from Tk41,854 crore earned in 2019-20, though it fell short of the target fixed in the budget.
The higher earnings came on the back of extra efforts and hard work by the staff members – who make up only 52% of the posts approved a decade ago.
The customs house also proved its mark in plugging revenue loopholes as it foiled attempts of customs dodgers.
Last week it seized foreign cigarettes declared by importers as duty-free garment accessories. Two such attempts were also foiled in months before, which fetched revenue of about Tk25 crore.
In March, it destroyed stockpiles of goods left by importers for long to clear space for port users.
Customs officials said they could have achieved more both in earning revenue and checking duty theft if the approved posts were filled.
The lack of manpower is forcing its existing officials and staff to take an additional workload but is also delaying the taxation process significantly, thus causing untold misery to businesses seeking to release their goods and products from Chattogram port, insiders have said.
There are also allegations that a certain quarter is taking advantage of the manpower shortage by importing undisclosed goods and engaging in smuggling from the port. The agency has written to the National Board of Revenue (NBR) on multiple occasions, but the issue persists to this day.
Acknowledging the issue, Chattogram Custom House Commissioner Mohammad Fakhrul Alam told The Business Standard, "The agency is operating under the organogram of 2011. The shortage of personnel is disrupting our usual day-to-day activities.
"We have requested the NBR to boost manpower here."
Chattogram Custom House data, updated on 1 June this year, notes that the agency has 1,248 approved positions, but only 647 of them are currently filled and 601 remain vacant. That indicates that 48.16% of the positions at the agency are currently vacant.
According to its organogram, 94 positions of the 210 first class staff remain vacant. Similarly, 231 positions of the 497 second class staff, 254 of the 423 third class staff and 22 of the 118 fourth class staff remain unfilled as well.
The manpower of Chattogram Custom House is divided into 50 categories, and among them, no officials or staff are currently working in 13 categories.
The categories are – deputy chief chemical examiner, assistant chemical examiner, programmer, assistant director (statistics), investigator (statistics), chief accounting officer, assistant accounting officer, statistics officer, auditor, speedboat driver, data entry operator, record supplier and cook.
On this subject, Fakhrul Alam said, "When the Covid-19 pandemic struck Bangladesh, most of the officers across the country stopped going out of their homes, but the Customs House operated 24 hours a day. The agency managed to achieve such revenue growth with only 52% of its personnel because of the professionalism and sincerity of its officials and staff at all levels.
"Customs House officials have proved that anything can be achieved with sincere efforts. They will continue to do their duty against all odds."
Several business people pointed out that they have to wait more than 15 days for the chemical test results conducted on their goods, a delay caused by the lack of necessary manpower at the agency.
A number of Customs House officials said they need at least 20 minutes to check a file containing data on imports and exports, but staff shortage has been forcing them to scrutinise such a file in ten minutes. This method of cutting corners is damaging the quality of their work.
Commenting on the matter, Chattogram Customs Excise and VAT Executive Officers' Association Chief Advisor Amjad Hossain Hazari said, "Officials in the jetty and in the Audit Investigation and Resource (AIR) section are currently working in 16-hour long shifts.
"Those working in other sections are also going through a similar situation."
He continued, "The customs officials are facing a dilemma. Senior officials have instructed their subordinates to carefully check documents associated with the shipment of goods before giving any clearance. But C&F agents get impatient if customs officials take too much time."
Revenue goes up, manpower does not
Chattogram Custom House data reveal that the agency earned Tk20,372 crore in revenue in the 2010-11 fiscal year. In comparison, it earned Tk44,834 crore till May this fiscal year, a figure which is projected to reach around Tk50,000 crore at the end of this year, insiders have said.
Though the agency's annual revenue increased by nearly Tk30,000 crore in the last 11 fiscal years, Chattogram Custom House has neither witnessed any changes to its organogram, nor were an adequate number of staff appointed to it.
Existing personnel have become physically and mentally drained after putting in additional working hours day after day. Many are making serious efforts to get transferred to other customs stations in the country.
Several officials of the assistant commissioner rank, on condition of anonymity, said they have been working in double shifts, but still cannot complete their daily work in time. The situation is very taxing for them, and many are finding it difficult to spend time with their family members.
C&F Agents Employees Association's former joint general secretary Md Mosharraf Hossain Bhuiyan said, "Officials are facing severe difficulties in clearing import-export files due to the lack of manpower. These difficulties in clearing such files are causing delays in the goods unloading process.
"Such issues not only cause suffering to the C&F agents, but also increase importers' overall costs."
The business community has recommended filling all vacant positions at the Chattogram Custom House, and restructuring its organogram to accommodate the increasing scope of business in the coming days.
On the issue, Chattogram Chamber of Commerce and Industry Vice President and Pacific Jeans Managing Director Syed Mohammad Tanvir said, "Chattogram Custom House is doing its best despite its severe manpower shortage; it should be lauded for this initiative.
"But the agency should review its organogram considering the currently increasing scope of business in Bangladesh, and the level it will reach in the next 10 years. It should appoint skilled manpower and boost capacity for utilising information and communication technology."