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1

The layman often does not know how many tiers of privilege are invisible too him. I have often wondered how I can purchase something that costs less than a dollar and it gets stuck in customs to never be seen again, or emerge after a few months, but couriers deliver international parcels within days. And it was evident that this is a mystery to many and even more have solved it with conspiracy theories, because the only plausible explanation to occur to me till today, living in a bribe riddled country was a twitter user's suggestion made a few years ago, that courier companies have their contacts in customs who clear parcels swiftly for them, while regular parcels wait.

It was today that I realized it is not so. Take the case of Mumbai The Courier cell at the airport clears parcels with Airway bills right there at the airport. Then comes the parcels with tracking numbers starting from "E" - EMS type ones at the Post parcel sorting office behind Sahara Hotel. The poor ones starting with C go all the way to Ballard Estate to clear customs. I guess this is an additional precaution in case customs fails to delay non-courier parcels enough. I imagine they have less storage space at the airport to keep lags, and that is the only reason they come through faster, because surely the government would not prefer some methods of shipments over others, including the government run postal system. Yeah, that was sarcasm. And yes, the speed of international couriers in delivering your parcel is not because they are "better" at it, but because customs seems to hurry them through while taking their own sweet time for others.

Regardless, this is not the purpose of the post. I got a call from DHL today, asking me to upload KYC documents for a shipment coming for me. This is a small quantity of oat bran and apple fiber - both of which, for mysterious reasons are not manufactured in India - at least for retail. I wanted to see what the products are. The total cost of both packets could not be over Rs. 500. KYC for a 500 rupee parcel, failing which it would be returned to sender? Unbelievable. I lost my temper with DHL - they want my official, personal identification and proof of address for their staff to be able to download and print whenever they "need" - PERMANENTLY? WHY? How are my documents their business at all and further, what is their justification to keep them in a usable format with them once the delivery is done?

This led to a search.

The gist of the problem is that our Customs department in all its wisdom issued a circular requiring KYC documents for every parcel going in or out of the country - regardless of the value of the parcel and whether it is eligible for customs duty. This is, presumably to prevent import/export fraud or money laundering, etc. Apparently customs hasn't realized that the letters that are so happily exempt can easily carry diamonds.

Now, as per Customs, these documents can be collected at the time of pick up or delivery. But obviously this is a headache for courier companies, that have found their own workaround. They simply ask customers to upload their documents to the courier's website, from where the courier will use them automatically in the future - at least reducing future headaches. This is a streamlining of operations, that makes sense - from the perspective of a courier. A courier is not responsible for national or individual security or rights of citizens. And our country, that claims to want to go digital has no concept of digital security at all beyond the "money" sites as I call them - tax, aadhaar.

As a result, we have a whole horde of foreign companies with databases of valid identification and proofs of addresses complete with email addresses and phone number (required at time of upoading documents) - from which they can also get date of birth. These documents are obviously good enough quality to be able to be printed and used by third parties for KYC. These documents are accessible - at the very least - to call center employees who call you up to discuss them and employees who will print them out from the database, attach them to parcels, take the parcels for customs clearance and perhaps further down the assembly line all the way to your door, including local delivery agents.

Now, what sort of security problems could be possible because of this?

At the point of the database

Call center employees, people taking print outs or such all the way to your door are unlikely to be highly skilled employees. They are necessary in large numbers. It is unclear what sort of screening procedures happen for them to be entrusted with such data.

Corrupt employees could easily sell identification documents of real people for money. Something like this has the potential to sit nicely on a DVD to go to the highest bidder.

Spy agencies could use such data for various purposes against Indian interest, including the basis of new fake identities. All it takes is one driving licence or passport to rent a place and become a local in a new place and get pretty much any document and begin a brand new life and toss the photocopy of the passport away on getting their new driving licence or whatever. Would be a pretty handy "Shopping mall of documents" to check out which customer of the courier company had photo identification that best suited the agent they were planting.

Given that the records would also come with email addresses and phone numbers with a good chance of being linked to the documents, the possibilities increase. Consider for example a person walking into a mobile provider's showroom asking for "his" SIM to be blocked and providing alternative documents to get a new SIM. If the address proof is a bank statement, for banks where customer ID is the login, should be a simple matter to reset password with a new SIM. Not to mention a list of people using international couriers is an automatic list of people extremely likely to be using electronic payments, to be from the rich and upper classes.

And you don't even have to have dishonest couriers for this. Databases get hacked and data dumps are sold on the black market. One created from such a source would have a very high percentage of lucrative targets with a good possibility of being vulnerable to targeted attacks or identity theft.

There are very very few places where you could get such complete information on such a targettable group - not even government databases could probably give you email addresses, phone numbers and printable copies of ID documents in one place.

How could this be avoided?

First and foremost, six years is plenty of time to collect data. Customs and revenue folks should provide statistics on how many cases of fraud were caught due to KYC data. At the very least, they must demonstrate that the expense and risk to individuals and country of conducting this circus is justified by results of the use of KYC data.

There is no reason to require documents for items not qualifying for duty to begin with - which would be the bulk of parcels. Where duty was paid, customs can easily require the receiver to upload documents to a government website for customs clearances instead of third parties based outside India. Couriers could even expedite the process by intimating customers not registered in customs to do it with their AWB number on booking of shipment to prevent delays in customs. Even then, it is unclear what KYC documents achieve - would be more useful to get a PAN number, which can, quickly be checked against bank accounts, tax status, import licences and more as well as payments made, while providing least "one stop" exploitable information to someone misusing it.  With something as specific as a PAN number, customs could even have automatic flags for more than "X" number of shipments in "Y" period - without even having to resort to any kind of snooping or invasions of privacy. Otherwise, simply having a few different shipping addresses (home, office, warehouse, shop - all would have address proof/rental agreement) could result in a workaround for illegal imports anyway.

 

This absurd requirement for customs puts both individuals as well as country at risk. This cannot be blamed on couriers - they are merely getting customers to "voluntarily" (or else you won't get your parcel) give up their documents to prevent inconvenience to themselves. While they are using the documents legally and have a good excuse for their coercive behavior, it is the responsibility of the government to secure the nation as well as its citizens from potential crime.

At the very least couriers must obtain explicit consent from regular customers to store their data permanently or be required to destroy such records once the need for documents is over - at least minimizing risk.

Third party databases containing complete identifiable information of Indian citizens from documents to contact information and date of birth - are a recipe for security disaster sooner or later.

What can we do to protect ourselves till then?

Do your international shipping through Postal departments as opposed to couriers. Or via E-Commerce websites that have shipping arrangements that don't require you to upload sensitive documents to third parties. You will still have to pay customs duty where applicable, but your documents would be less vulnerable to misuse.

2

Raj Thackeray is making news with the toll plazas again with 4 road toll booths vandalized. Earlier this month it was Shiv Sena that torched 3 road toll collection booths. The objective is to disrupt toll collection. They see toll booths as economic crimes by overcharging people, faking accounts to show less profits and continue collecting toll for a longer period. Their actions are violent. To put it bluntly, they are wrecking toll booths. People are getting Pavlovian frowns. Violent is bad, right?

I agree that violence is bad. But I disagree that in this case the only violence is by Thackeray & Co. In Maharashtra, the collusion of powerful people is such that large profits are being made by those in power and their affiliates. It is not a new story. These are known illegal practices by an established mafia that aren't even dented by repeated exposes. MNS have a point. If the cost of a road is 5 crores, why is 45 crores collected? If vehicle owners pay road tax, why should they also have to pay toll tax for making that road?

Livemint had this to point out earlier this month: Wanted: A transparent road policy in Maharashtra

Many are not against the tolls per se but they feel there is no transparency in the manner in which the contracts for tolled roads are given out and that the government is literally taking them for a ride for the benefit of a few contractors.

For example, the National Highways Authority of India’s (NHAI’s) norms say the distance between two toll plazas should be at least 80km but the Maharashtra government’s policy uses a vague terminology and fixes the distance between two toll plazas at 35-40km. It has never explained why the distance between two plazas should be brought down by half.

Besides, on toll roads, BOT contractors are supposed to provide facilities such as ambulances, toilets and eateries, but except for a few roads like the Mumbai-Pune expressway and the Mumbai-Nashik highway, hardly any other toll road has these facilities.

Contractors are also supposed to maintain the roads during the so-called concession period, when they enjoy the right to collect the toll; but, except in a few major highways, the contractors don’t seem to be interested in taking care of damages caused by usual wear and tear. Officials from the public works department are rarely seen being pro-active and compelling contractors to do their job.

Then there are questions on the manner in which the tendering process is carried out. No one knows who, how and when the traffic surveys are carried out, how the toll fee is fixed, how the period for which a contract is given is calculated, or what formula is used for increasing the fee every year.

Here is an excerpt Chauthiduniya's June 2012 coverage of the toll tax scam frustration

The illegal exaction of toll tax in Maharashtra has snowballed into a major controversy after the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) cadre resorted to vandalism... In many cases toll is still being charged even after the period of exaction has expired. It is for this reason that none of the political parties of the state condemned the actions of MNS. Instead, many a political heavyweight came out in open support of the protest. Even anti-graft crusader Anna Hazare was seen condoning the protests. The Public Works Minister Chagan Bhujbal was left in a spot of bother as even his cabinet colleagues raised their voice against the malpractice. As a matter of fact, as per a court order, an FIR has been lodged against many senior officials of Bhujbal’s department in connection with the Shiroor toll picket case. The protests against this malpractice later spread from Nasik to Mumbai, Nagpur, Wardha, Amraoti and Bhandara districts.

... The period of toll exaction had ended way back in 2011 but charging of toll has continued unabated even to this day. The 30 kilometer stretch has become the hub of illegal toll collection.Interestingly, even if the toll collection period had ended in 2011, the state government has extended the period by another year and the contract has been given to three contractors. People started a protest movement over this and vandalised the toll picket...

Another interesting facet of the story is that Nasik, from where the entire movement against illegal exaction of toll started, is the home district of Chhagan Bhujbal. He is, perhaps, the only person who has denied any illegality in the issue and is justifying the toll collection. Anna Hazare had earlier raised this issue, and this time state Agriculture Minister Radhakrishna Patil too has pointed fingers at the misplaced toll policy which he wants reviewed so as to prevent any untoward incident happening over the matter.

Patil questioned the wisdom behind the current toll policy and said that it was just filling the coffers of the contractors. MNS says that once the road tax is included at the time of the registration of the vehicles there is no merit in again collecting toll tax. If the cost of the road is just five crores, why does the government authorise a toll tax collection of 45 crores? Toll collection is entirely illegal if we look at some facts. The Nasik-Yewala road was built at a cost of 174 crores yet the government authorised the collection of 1550 crores as toll over a period of 28 years. Similarly, the Aurabgabad-Vadala road incurred an investment of 190 crores, but the government authorised the collection of 1330 crores over 25 years; Shiroor-Ahmadnagar highway was built at a cost 162 crores but collection of 713 crores was authorised for 19 years; Jalan-Watur highway was built at a cost 100 crores but collection of 915 crore was authorised for 30 years; Pune-Shiroor highway built at a cost 105 crores but collection of thrice the amount was authorised. The list is not exhaustive and many more examples can be cited.

Another example of how the poor are suffering at the hands of this draconian taxation is the Dewali village toll picket on the Wardha-Yavatmal highway. As per the law, there should be no toll picket within a kilometer of a village or a town but this one is just 200 metres from the village and for getting to the filling station, the villagers have to pay toll tax. Actually, there is no system for regulating the collection of toll. Though computer-generated slips are given at various places, there is no cross checking of whether the total receipts have broken even with the cost or not. Consequently, the officials take the amount reported by contractors at face value and turn a blind eye to the primary question.

...The leader of Opposition in Maharashtra, Eknath Khadse, has alledged that illegal toll collection is a scam worth at least 10,000 crore for which Chhagan Bhujbal is responsible.

- See more at: http://www.eng.chauthiduniya.com/toll-takes-a-heavy-toll-in-maharashtra/#sthash.tlibsLmd.dpuf

Two years ago, there was a virtual flurry of exposes related with the toll booths. Today, there is no change. This seems set to go the irrigation scam way, and there is little people can do about it.

We see the visible violence - that of a vandalized booth, but we fail to notice the constant violence of exploitation of state resources for the profit of a few powerful entities.

Is the Shiv Sena or MNS wrong in vandalizing the toll booths? Sure. But the fact remains that these cartels entrenched in the system are not going to go away with petitions and candles. I am not all that bothered as long as people are not hurt. Particularly when it comes to property that belongs to the target of the protest (as opposed to breaking random windows and burning cars) and can be easily replaced in a fraction of the ill gotten wealth that is being protested... if it shows results.

But the other fact also remains that vandalizing the toll booths for several years now also has not resulted in any change either. It remains a method of grabbing attention for the cause that lacks teeth to do anything beyond that. Today toll booths all over Maharashtra are being vandalized. It is pointless to tell them to stop, because it is deliberate, and political and long running enough to have a lot of fed up people backing it. If this merely achieves the lack of toll collection till they are repaired, then it does not mean much. If it forces transparency and accountability, perhaps the anarchy will have achieved something.

There is a need for clear and transparent process of tenders, accounts, toll collection, traffic measurement and more. There is no getting around that.

10

Two weeks ago, in Vile Parle East, there was a commotion on the street near where I was talking with two people I knew. It looked like two men were fighting. The two men I was with immediately rushed to intervene, while I watched from the sidelines.

What had happened was that a man had flagged a rickshaw to take his aged ill mother to a nearby hospital and the rickshaw driver refused to take them there. Furious and frustrated, the man beat the rickshaw guy mercilessly. The poor driver was paying for the collective refusal of several rickshaws to ferry him while his tired mother waited helplessly.

While this is a dramatic incident, it is quite common. Rickshaw drivers routinely refuse passengers to places they don't want to go to and accept rides only to select locations - for various reasons which basically boil down to convenience. They may not wish to go out of their area, or they may want to avoid areas with bad roads, or very commonly, they want to avoid places where they will end up at a rickshaw stand after dropping off passengers (at a rickshaw stand, they can't refuse any location a passenger wants to go to) and so on. It is a common frustration to be refused by many rickshaws before you get one.

Passengers are increasingly furious, but feel helpless, since rickshaws may be public transport, but them having no set rules or locations, it is difficult to police this kind of misconduct. And misconduct it is. Idea of a public vehicle is that it is available to all potential passengers indiscriminately. In reality, there are few places where you can easily get rickshaws for.

Yesterday, I carried Nisarga about half way to Andheri in blazing afternoon heat, because 27 rickshaws refused to go to Andheri Station. That is right Twenty Seven rickshaws refused point blank to go to Andheri Station from Vile Parle Subhash Road. When we did Nisarga's BERA Test last week, 13 rickshaws refused to travel from Vile Parle East Hanuman Road to Nanavati Hospital in the West. It is quite common to waste up to half an hour to get a rickshaw to an inconvenient place. I know a friend who was not able to travel from Vile Parle East Nehru Road to Aarey Milk Colony after waiting for two full hours. Going from Borivli West - Yogi Nagar to Thakur Village Kandivli East or even the National Park is a big challenge.

This makes for a lot of angry people. Rickshaws will drive by empty but refuse to take passengers to places they don't like. These areas being relatively prosperous and busy, there is no dearth of passengers to quickly find another who wants to go to a place they like. On the other hand, this pretty much amounts to serious failure of public transport in some situations.

They charge us extra at night for the inconvenience (isolated areas don't have further fares after dropping passengers requiring a driving back to a suitable place), but whether it is day or night they don't actually take inconvenient fares. Then what are we paying for, and why?

Together with some friends, we have come up with several ideas as a beginning point for getting some accountability into an inconvenience that is fast escalating into unreliable public transport.

  1. Find out and publicize complaint numbers for rickshaw drivers who refuse passengers and file complaints.
  2. Try and get traffic officials to run stings for such rickshaw drivers or encourage citizens do them and publicize on a wider scale and demand that they are made to follow rules.
  3. Never ask if a rickshaw will take you to a certain location, but sit first, and then give directions. If the driver refuses, ask for his licence and note details and the rickshaw's registration. The practice of asking rickshaw drivers locations before boarding should be stopped completely. It would be good for them if their comfort could be accommodated, but unfortunately, this is resulting in many parts of the city being extremely difficult to find transport for.
  4. There needs to be something more that we can do, because none of this guarantee that the drivers will play fair. Find out, collaborate on ideas. Someone had suggested a boycott with people offering lifts in personal vehicles, but this is not so practical.
I am hoping you have some good ideas to add to this.