Amanullah Tareen, Additional Collector, Enforcement, Karachi
Smuggling is a pervasive issue that undermines both the economy and society of a country. It results in the loss of revenue for the government and has been estimated to cause an annual loss of over 400 billion rupees to the national economy of Pakistan. The smuggling of petroleum products alone, for example, is estimated to result in annual losses of 240 billion rupees to the national government according to the Report of the Inquiry Commission on the shortage of Petroleum Products in Pakistan. This highlights the significant economic impact that smuggling can have on a country.In addition to impacting the distribution of wealth and causing economic distortions, smuggling also creates a parallel economy that operates outside of government regulations and oversight. The proceeds of smuggling often make up a significant portion of the informal or black economy, which is at high risk of being misused by terror financing groups and other anti-state actors.
Smuggling across the porous international borders of Afghanistan and Iran into the province of Baluchistan, and its subsequent transportation to other provinces within Pakistan, has been a persistent problem for many years. Baluchistan, the largest province of Pakistan in terms of area, comprising about 44% of the country’s landmass, but with the smallest population at only 5% of the total, presents unique challenges for anti-smuggling efforts due to its long, porous borders with Afghanistan and Iran, measuring approximately 930 and 700 kilometers respectively. The long borders make it difficult for the government to monitor and control the illegal activities.Pakistan Customs, the premier anti-smuggling agency mandated to curb smuggling, faces a number of challenges in terms of personnel, resources, logistics, and infrastructure. With limited resources and personnel, it becomes difficult for Pakistan Customs to monitor and control the illegal activities. Pakistan Customs, therefore, relies on the assistance of other civil armed forces and law enforcement agencies (LEAs) such as the Frontier Corps, Pakistan Coast Guard, Pakistan Rangers, provincial government, Police etc in its anti-smuggling efforts.
There are several factors that contribute to the prevalence of smuggling in Baluchistan. Firstly, the economy of the province is heavily reliant on outdated agricultural practices, which results in widespread poverty and accounts for 50% of the provincial GDP. According to the World Bank, the poverty rate in Baluchistan is estimated to be around 60%, one of the highest in South Asian region. This poverty leads individuals, who are struggling to make ends meet, to engage in smuggling in order to support their families.Secondly, the lack of industries in the province results in high levels of unemployment, further incentivizing smuggling. According to Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, the unemployment rate in Baluchistan is more than 6%. The lack of job opportunities in the province leads many individuals to turn to smuggling as a means of livelihood.Thirdly, the commercial import of petroleum products, which is a basic necessity, is restricted to only oil marketing companies, which do not have outlets in many areas of the province and do not permit other businesses to import the product. This monopoly on the import of petroleum products generates a demand for smuggled goods, as individuals are forced to turn to illegal means to acquire essential products.Fourthly, there is a prevalent perception among certain segments of the population that smuggling is a legitimate trade, leading to cultural acceptance of the practice. The long-standing tradition of smuggling in the province has led to a cultural acceptance of the practice among certain segments of the population, making it difficult to combat.Lastly, the long, porous borders of the province lead to economic consequences such as trade imbalances and the influx of cheap, smuggled goods, which negatively impact local businesses. The influx of smuggled goods into the province results in a decrease in demand for locally produced goods, resulting in a loss of revenue for local businesses and a negative impact on the local economy.
The enforcement formations of Pakistan Customs in different parts of the country face numerous challenges in their efforts to combat smuggling.One of the primary issues is shortage of manpower, which prevents Pakistan Customs from effectively manning the two international borders with Iran and Afghanistan. With less than one thousand Customs personnel in Balochistan, with not more than 400 personnel deployed for anti-smuggling, it is literally impossible to guard the 1600 kms-long two international borders of Iran and Afghanistan, a task which needs at least ten to fifteen thousand personnel. As a result, Pakistan Customs is forced to focus on major road arteries within the country rather than stopping the flow of smuggled goods at the borders. In addition to lack of personnel, Pakistan Customs also suffers from a lack of logistical support. The few operational vehicles available to Pakistan Customs are old and in unsound condition, which are not suitable for chasing smugglers or conducting swift anti-smuggling operations. At least, one thousand new operational vehicles are required to guard borders and carry out anti-smuggling operations at borders and on arterial routes leading to municipal limits. Besides, there are no aerial vehicles or helicopters for surveillance. The weapons available to Pakistan Customs are also outdated and largely non-functional, while smugglers are equipped with the latest automatic weapons.
The insurgency-like situation in parts of the province of Baluchistan, particularly in its interior, including Panjgur, Turbat, and Mand, makes it difficult to carry out anti-smuggling activities in these troubled areas along Pak-Iran border. The attacks on law enforcement agencies in interior Baluchistan is evidence of this. Customs staff in these areas may also be reluctant to fully engage in anti-smuggling efforts due to fear of backlash from smugglers. This fear has been compounded by the lack of justice in the case of Deputy Collector Abdul Qadoos Sheikh, who was martyred in an encounter with smugglers.The harsh topography of Baluchistan also presents challenges for patrolling and seizing smuggled goods. Inadequate and outdated physical infrastructure, communication equipment, and other related equipment also hinder anti-smuggling efforts. There are no proper residential facilities at check-posts and even basic necessities are often unavailable. The worsening outlook is further exacerbated by the fact that there is also a lack of a formal network of informers within Customs, which makes it difficult to obtain vital information for anti-smuggling efforts. There are no funds available with Collectors Customs to cultivate informers as the current reward system for informers is time-consuming and cumbersome.Finally, smuggling is a highly lucrative activity that allows those involved to accumulate vast amounts of wealth in a short period of time. In Pakistan, smugglers have become so powerful that they hold significant political sway and often have private militias. Their armed men frequently fight with Customs staff, who are less trained and equipped.The theme of the World Customs Organization (WCO) for 2023, which emphasizes the nurturing of the next generation of Customs professionals, is particularly relevant in the context of counter-smuggling measures. This theme highlights the importance of providing training and building the capacity of customs professionals in order to effectively combat smuggling.
One solution to the challenges faced by Pakistan Customs in their anti-smuggling efforts is the establishment of a dedicated border customs force. The Border Customs Force (BCF) would be responsible for stopping smuggled goods at the borders with Afghanistan and Iran, rather than conducting anti-smuggling operations within municipal limits. This force should be fully equipped with the necessary resources to effectively combat smuggling at the borders. Currently, the Border Customs formations including Quetta Enforcement, Peshawar Enforcementand Gwadar Collectorates do not have the capacity to stop smuggling at the borders. A dedicated Customs Border force could address this issue right at the borders.
Improved coordination among law enforcement agencies (LEAs) is critical in the fight against smuggling. While Pakistan Customs is the primary anti-smuggling agency, the Frontier Corps and Coast Guards also have a role in curbing smuggling and should continue to beentrusted anti-smuggling powers under section 6 of the Customs Act, 1969 by the Federal Board of Revenue, like in the past, to discharge anti-smuggling functions. To effectively combat smuggling, it is important to prioritize it as a national issue and address it at both the policy and operational levels. For the aforesaid purpose, National Anti-smuggling Policy needs to be notified and put in place.
One way to improve the effectiveness of Pakistan Customs in anti-smuggling efforts is to formally declare it as a law enforcement agency (LEA). This would provide Customs with additional powers and incentives to combat smuggling. The commercial import of POL products needs to be allowed by amending Import Policy Order to enable residents of Coastal and Interior Balochistan to import POL products for their consumption. Alternatively, Oil Marketing Companies should open their outlets in these areas to supply POL products to the residents to offer them the alternative of using bona fide diesel/petrol. In addition, Collectors/Directors Customs should be given sufficient secret funds to reward informers instantly and effect seizures of narcotics and contrabands.
In short, the problem of smuggling can be succinctly summarized as: a financially limited resource-constrained Pakistan Customs facing off against a billion-dollar smuggling industry.Here in short are several steps that can be taken to improve Pakistan Customs’ ability to combat smuggling. By establishing a dedicated Customs border force, formulating National Anti-smuggling Policy, provision ofnecessary human resource, logistics and infrastructure to Customs, improving institutionalized coordination among civil armed forces/LEAs and Pakistan Customs, declaring Pakistan Customs as a law enforcement agency (LEA), Pakistan Customs can more effectively address the issue of smuggling and protect the country’s economic and national security more efficiently.
Despite the challenges encountered in the realm of enforcement, Pakistan Customs has demonstrated exceptional anti-smuggling performance. According to data from FBR, over the last five years, Pakistan Customs has made seizures of smuggled or contraband goods with a CIF value of approximately 170 billion rupees, and an estimated market value of approximately 300 billion rupees. The seizure data indicates that more than 12,000 non-custom paid vehicles have been confiscated during the last five years. It is worth noting that these figures do not take into account seizures of narcotics or drugs.
To effectively address smuggling in Baluchistan and other parts of Pakistan, it is crucial for Pakistan Customs to nurture the next generation of officers by promoting a culture of knowledge-sharing and professional pride. By investing in the training and development of their personnel, Pakistan Customs can build a highly skilled and motivated workforce capable of addressing the challenges of smuggling in a professional and effective manner. This is in line with the World Customs Organization’s theme for 2023, which emphasizes the importance of nurturing the next generation of customs officers and promoting a culture of knowledge-sharing and professional pride within the agency.