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
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
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
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
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 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
* A commemorative stamp and a silver coin will be issued on the
* In a joint project with the Archeology Department, the Godawaya
Inscription and the Harbour, a land mark in Sri Lankan Customs will be
* 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
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
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.