Sukumar Mukhopadhyay: Euthanasia of the Pink book and Red book

Much has changed from the early sixties when I was a junior Assistant Collector in the Calcutta Custom House. We were Collectors and Commissioners. I was always fond of the name Collector and had no particular fancy for the word Commissioner. One of our colleagues Mr Rangawani used to joke that the Collectors should be known as Inspectors and those who are known as Collectors should be known as Collectors. What was his intention we can only guess. I am writing this piece about losing our power of administering licence with the same nostalgia with which a Britisher would rue the loss of the British Empire.
 
Pink book was a collection of Board`s circulars which were systematically arranged according to the tariff items. The circulars were not reproduced but only the conclusion was there. So it was very easy to read. In the appraising department we used to make assessment after seeing the tariff book and the pink book. That was all. If there was no ruling mentioned, then we used to just apply common sense and find out from the tariff book what the classification would be. The rulings were treated as so much sacrosanct that if anybody would go against the Pink book then  he would be simply be chargesheeted. I remember that there was one case where the Collector refused to charge sheet an appraiser on the ground that he had done the correct classification and the circular in the Pink Book was wrong. This was a rare case since the Collector was very bold.
 
Now about the Red Books. In the sixties in the Custom Houses in India, particularly in Calcutta (as it then was), there were two Red Books. One was Mao’s Red Book and the other was the Licence Policy Book.
 
    Mao’s Red Books used to come (as a part of Chinese propaganda literature) as unsolicited gifts to thousands of people. They were in English, Bengali, and Chinese too. There was no space in the foreign post office to keep anything else. It was a critical situation. All fresh bags were lying outside. It was an uphill task disposing them of legally. Summary disposals had to be resorted to, to prevent them from reaching their target readers. Once they came to know that we were making a bonfire of them, they stopped sending them. At that time I justified the action by resorting to the well-known dictum,”An unnatural problem needs an unnatural solution.” I flattered myself for my application of the logic called “Lateral Thinking”. With the change in the political equation between China and the extremist communists in India, the import of Red Books also died its natural death.

 

  The other Red Book, the Import Policy Book, had a much longer and charmed life. It was called Red Book because the cover was red. The current joke those days was that it was red because those who wanted to import goods used to see red. It was called Red Book by one and all in the importing world, by customs, clearing agents, traders and import control authorities. We had in it different policies for different classes of importers such as Established Importers, Actual Users, and those under Export Promotion Schemes. Goods, which were not manufactured in India, could be imported on production of NMI certificate issued by the Director General of Technical Development. Certificates were galore. From Electronics Department, from Health Department, from Education Department, from Defence Department and so on. The Licence Raj and the Certificate Raj were two manifestations of the same control system. Then there was Recommendation letters from the Chief Controller of Imports. And Customs would refuse to accept them if they were thought to be wrong. Was an R-letter from CCIE binding on Customs? I would not follow it if it was wrong. In fact later when I was posted as Collector of Customs Bombay I wrote to the Chief Commissioner of Import and Export that in a particular case the Recommendation letter was so much wrong that there should be investigation against the officer who issued it. Later I came to know that he was charge sheeted as the then CCIE was a forthright and strong person. Much depends on the person when it comes to implementation of policies.       

 

       It was also a battle of wits between customs and the importers. The reader may find interest in some of the crisp anecdotes. Sugar was banned. So one importer imported sugar and declared them as ‘cane juice crystal’. Since the banned list contained the name as ‘sugar’, the importer thought that it would escape detection. Unfortunately his trick failed. Another importer brought Scotch whisky in large casks and called them raw materials for making bottled whisky because raw materials were allowed to be imported. Most of the controversies were due to very vague descriptions. How would one understand what is “fancy fabrics”? The case went upto the Finance Secretary who saw each sample and called it fancy or not according to his choice. And then there was the classic case of an import of a racehorse from England calling it as baggage since baggage allowed pet animal. There was battle royal in the High Court on what is meant by pet. Then followed another battle royal in the Supreme Court on the distinction between prohibition and restriction. There used to be riotous situation if advertisements were made for selling confiscated goods. Particularly cosmetics were in great demand. Visit to the godowns for confiscated goods were a must for the M.Ps who would come to oversee customs work.

 

            We have spent our lifetime administering these restrictions, prohibitions, licences, quotas, asking for certificates, recommendation letters, differentiating between paper and board, between resin and rubber, ash and dross, permissible and impermissible of all kinds of things. This has left us, the customs officers, powerful and knowledgeable, the importers thoroughly dejected, rattled and exhausted and the industry writhing in pain.

 

  Now the Red Book has become white both in colour and content. The shackles on imports have been removed. The Q.Rs have almost gone. It is all for the better. The reason for my saying so is the following. Lower tariffs and lesser restrictions did not certainly to bring in a deluge of imports. It never became as  momentous as some feared. The sight of apples from Australia being sold on footpaths need not frighten anybody. For one thing they are not more tasteful than the best Indian varieties. Their gloss will not last long. If it does, it is fine. London sells the best variety of apples of Kashmir, best of bananas from Africa and the best of fish from Bangladesh. That does not make England poorer. So long as the country is able to export enough it does well to derive the advantages of free trade, which, from the times of Adam Smith, is still acclaimed as the most valid theory. “Poor countries need to realise that their own protectionism is often the cause of their dismal export and economic performance”, says Jagdish Bhagwati. The benefits of opening up are more than its contrived defects. Freer trade allows for specialisation and thus greater production. It improves quality, which ultimately boosts exports. The Red Book has died its natural death. We should rather rejoice and  not rue its demise.                                                                                       smukher2000@yahoo