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Celebrating bi-centenary of Customs

The Sri Lanka Customs Department established in June 1809 during the British colonial era celebrates 200 years of service this year

The maritime silk route, which ran parallel to the ancient Silk Route from Persia to China, operated through the Sri Lanka’s historic Manthota port.

Thousands of vessels undertook this perilous sea voyage on the Maritime silk route said to have anchored at the Manthota Port in this beautiful little island known as Ceylon and officials called ‘Mahaputu Laddan’ had collected taxes from the ship’s crew, so says the ‘Tam’ inscriptions at the Mannar Kachcheri.


Customs officers inspecting a stock of goods at the Airport. Picture by Ranjith Jayaweera

It is said that Sri Lanka followed Customs procedures, considered the second oldest profession in the world according to popular belief, since the time of King Vijaya. During the time of King Gajabahu I (115-134 AC) there was an order by a stone inscription to donate part of the customs collections at the Godawaya Port at Ambalanthota to the Godapawath Temple.

The concept of Customs derived from the ‘customary payment’.Ancient traders used to make this payment to the head of State of a foreign country during their long journeys to sell their copious merchandise. By the customary payment they expected protection from the rulers to continue with their trade in their land. History provides evidence that all our past kings had followed such customs procedures.

The practice of Customs was officially started in Sri Lanka by the British colonial leaders. The Private Secretary of the then Governor of Ceylon Sir Fredrick North, Anthony Bertolacci was appointed the first Head of Customs Department on June 14, 1809. His title was Principal Collector of Customs. This was immediately after Sri Lanka becoming a British Colony.

Legalization of first Customs Ordinance took place in 1869. There had been 50 changes by way of amendments to this ordinance up to date.

From earlier days the harbour and the airport were treated as customs area and import and export duties and other levies were recovered. At the inception the Principal Collector reported to the Colonial Secretary and the Governor General. Under the dominion state and in the Parliamentary system, the Principal Collector was brought under the Finance Minister. From 1909 to 1988, the Head of the Department served as the Principal Collector of the Customs. From 1988, this position had changed to the Director General of Customs. There were 74 such Department Heads with 11 serving after independence.

At present, the Department is administered with a cadre of over 2100 and consists of about 20 detections and other units of which the main ones are Preventive, Valuation, Bonding, Motor Vehicle, Baggage, Revenue Task Force, Exports, Imports and High Risk Cargo. There are three Customs Container Examination Points, two at Orugodawatte and one at Bloemendhal.

The Department also maintains four outpost customs offices in Galle, Beruwala, Negombo and Trincomalee. The now defunct out posts in Thalai Mannar, Point Pedro and Chavakachcheri will soon be revived, with the restoration of normality in the area.

In line with its bi-centennial celebrations, the Department has organized a series of religious cultural, and social programs throughout the year.

* The officers who have completed 25 years will be presented awards at a ceremony held on August 25 at the BMICH. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Finance Minister, under whose purview the Customs Department functions and the State Finance Minister of Finance will be conferred special awards.

* A commemorative stamp and a silver coin will be issued on the occasion.

* In a joint project with the Archeology Department, the Godawaya Inscription and the Harbour, a land mark in Sri Lankan Customs will be conserved.

* A surgical machine to treat kidney patients will be donated to Kandy hospital by the Customs officers.

* A ‘Customs anthem’ composed by the award winning lyricist Wasantha Kumara Kobawaka, an officer attached to the Customs Department will be released on the occasion.

* A commemorative souvenir containing articles on Customs Officers who had been renowned for their unique talents; film directors, teledrama producers, singers, writers and sports personalities will also be released on the occasion.


Fighting a running battle :

Customs Director General S.A.C.S. W. Jayatilake says the Customs is engaged in a running battle with a sophisticated and hi-tech enemy and they cannot rate their current position as satisfying. However, it has begun a rigourous forward march.

He said the Department has come a long way in its mission to serve the nation.

His ambition is to increase its efficiency, accountability and transparency towards which they are now striving hard through a host of re-structuring programs.


Customs Director General S.A.C.S.W. Jayatilake.
Picture by Saman Sri Wedage

The Customs have become fully automated with a client- friendly more simplified online clearance process called ASYCUDA. The latest version of this software ‘ASYCUDA world’ developed by the Microsoft for UNCTAD will be in place shortly. The project cost is Rs.45 million.

The software speeds up the clearance process minimizing human contact, hence the chances of corruption.

It has also begun registering the import agencies after verifying their bona fide, with a view to maintain a data bank that would help put a tab on smuggling and other malpractices involving import and exports, fulfilling a longstanding need.

All Customs units scattered throughout will be housed in one location known as the Central Headquarters of the Customs Department.

Construction of this complex close to the main entrance of the Colombo Harbour is almost completed and the relocation is set to begin by March next year. Customs revenue accounts for 50 percent of the total national income. The target revenue for 2009 is Rs.427 billion. The total income for 2007 and 2008 are Rs.315 billion and Rs.279 billion respectively.

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