By Chandeepa Wettasinghe
Sri Lanka Customs officials last week got a roasting from Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake for not stepping up to facilitate cross border trade.
“Look I don’t want a lame excuse. I don’t want this to be repeated ever again. Ensure that you get your house in order,” Karunanayake reprimanded Customs officials at the 10th Ease of Doing Business Forum which was organized by the Finance Ministry last week.
Sri Lanka’s Ease of Doing Business ranking fell to 110th place as revealed last week, with cross border trade being ranked at 90th, according to the World Bank.
Customs officials who were present at the Finance Ministry event had not been able to provide adequate explanations for their department’s shortcomings in facilitating private sector operations.
“All the questions today got half baked responses,” Karunanayake said.
In one instance, the Global Group subsidiary Global Sea Foods (Pvt) Ltd Executive Director Channa Weeratunga accused Customs officials of classifying HS codes for trays that fish are placed on for exports as boxes for reason only known to the officials, and that the delays in clearing his cargo had cost him losses over Rs.5 million.
“The Customs officials were asking me for a Rs.250,000 bribe, after breaking their own regulations. When I brought this to the attention of the Executive Director of Customs and other officials, they became angry to hear I was a BoI (Board of Investment) Company. They seem to hate BoI companies,” he said.
The Customs officials present deflected the blame, saying that the faults were with Weeratunga for not seeking an advanced classification ruling, and with the BoI officials who had classified trays as trays instead of boxes.
After the Customs officials had complained that they had not received the queries posed by the private sector in advance from the Finance Ministry, Karunanayake said that the coordinating officer has done her work excellently in the past, and that he has the utmost confidence in her, unlike them.
The Customs Department also falls under the Finance Ministry.
The current government has said that it can only rely on trade to get out of the mess created by the past regime which had borrowed heavily to fund white elephant projects.
In the latest World Trade Organization (WTO) Trade Facilitation Agreements, Sri Lanka had applied as a ‘B Classification’ country, but was demoted and accepted as a ‘C Classification’ country that requires major reforms in its customs and judicial contract enforcement processes to facilitate better trade.
Among all indicators, Sri Lanka’s worst was in enforcing contracts coming in at 163rd in the Ease of Doing Business Rankings.