Bhutan Gate

SSB officer under enquiry for links with Jaigaon tobacco smugglers and Jaigaon Customs officials accused of taking money from Bhutanese vehicles and exports

A Deputy Commandant (DC) of the SSB based in Jalpaiguri, Rajneesh Moral, has been transferred out and is undergoing an enquiry over allegations of his links with tobacco smugglers in Jaigaon who smuggled tobacco into Bhutan.

SSB confirms transfer and enquiry

The SSB Inspector General (IG) of Siliguri Frontier Srikumar Bandhopadhya and the SSB Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Parikshita Behera both confirmed the transfer and the enquiry.

DIG Parikshita Behera said, “There is an enquiry going on against Moral and he has been relieved from his post in Jalpaiguri and transferred. The transfer is on an enquiry regarding allegations of nexus with smugglers in Jaigaon.”

The DIG said that the evidences against Moral consists of an audio recording where two people are referring to him and also a statement by one of his colleagues against him.

He said Moral has been transferred to Rangia.

The DIG also said that Moral’s promotion has been put on hold until the enquiry is being done.

The DIG said that Moral had gone to Jaigaon to record some statements and then ‘few persons’ went against him and there was a complaint against him.

The IG of SSB Srikumar Bandhopadhya said that the SSB’s policy is a friendly one towards Bhutan and to help Bhutanese authorities.

He said that he has not got reports of SSB issues and if there are any then they should be sent to him on his email address which he shared with the paper.

The IG said that the SSB is only a border guard force but they are not the only ones with a uniform in the border as there are a lot of other agencies like customs and others.

On the issue of Moral, the IG said that an enquiry has been ordered after allegations came of Moral taking money from some truck owners. He said the SSB has a zero tolerance and so an enquiry is being done but he said so far nothing substantive has come of it.

The issue against DC Rajneesh Moral first surfaced in August 2020 when 55 Jaigaon business people and local residents put up a written complaint against him to the IG SSB.

Ironically, Moral had been sent purportedly to investigate the Jaigaon SSB and local business people, but Jaigaon locals allege the real intent was quite something else.

A few sources that The Bhutanese talked to from Jaigaon said that the Jaigaon SSB had been making a lot of seizures of drugs, illegal substances, illegal forest products and others and so the real reason Moral had been sent was to collect some money for his superiors to take a cut from the tobacco smuggling into Bhutan from businesses and smugglers in Jaigaon.

The letter signed by the 55 says, “People have speculations now that the commander (Jaigaon local SSB Commander being investigated by Moral) is being harassed because he did not go into any corruption and thus is unable to feed money of corruption to the higher officials resulting in harassment and defamation.”

Some of these sources said that the action so far against Moral is only as a ‘sacrificial lamb’ as he was working for more senior people in the SSB North Bengal and even the enquiry against him is an eyewash and nothing will come of it.

The sources also alleged that the five journalists in Jaigaon against whom an extortion FIR case have been registered used to ‘sell the name of SSB’ and they had links to Moral.

They alleged that it was under the influence of Moral that some junior SSB staff at the Phuentsholing gate started stopping trucks carrying Bhutanese potatoes and vegetables who were being extorted by the five journalists.

The Bhutanese already has testimonies of local importers in Jaigaon who say that if they did not pay the five local journalists then their trucks coming from Bhutan would get stopped by the SSB and Customs.

A senior Home Ministry official in Thimphu said that when trucks exporting vegetables from Bhutan were help up in Jaigaon and they talked to customs the customs blamed the SSB and when they talked to SSB the SSB blamed customs.

He said, “I feel instead they must have an understanding between the two agencies to give such responses.”

Jaigaon sources said that extortion of vegetable trucks from Bhutan was only a small part of the business as the main aim was to take a cut from the rampant and lucrative tobacco smuggling happening from Jaigaon.

Rajneesh Moral when contacted by The Bhutanese denied the above allegations and said that he was in fact investigating smugglers.

He said the complaint and allegations against him were put in by people involved in smuggling.

He said that in fact he passed on information to the Royal Bhutan Police which had made a seizure of illegal tobacco products.

The SSB is the main force that guards the 699 km Bhutan-India border and their mandate apart from guarding the border is to prevent cross border crime and smuggling.

Customs harassment and extortion

Apart from the SSB there are allegations of harassment and extortion of Bhutanese vehicles by some customs officials in Jaigaon.

Earlier The Bhutanese already reported on how a source inside the clearing house agent in the Jaigaon customs alerted the five reporters on consignments.

Apart from this, Jaigaon sources said that some customs officials after the lockdown in Bhutan started an extortion racket targeting Bhutanese vehicles coming into Jaigaon for repairs and also vegetable trucks.

The sources said that a person by the nickname of ‘Sarkar’ in the Jaigaon Customs extorted between INR 18,000 to 6,000 per Bhutanese vehicles heading into Jaigaon for repairs.

The customs officials involved in this racket took advantage of a little known 2017 rule which required certain documentation for bringing in cars for repairs from Bhutan to Jaigaon and also the prevention of cars coming in older than seven years.

This extortion of Bhutanese vehicles was pointed out by Jaigaon business people and particularly workshop owners in a written submission to their Member of Parliament John Barla during a recent visit.

Jaigaon locals say another source of extortion was vegetable vehicles coming in from Bhutan to Jaigaon and there too the customs officials doing the extortion took advantage of the fact that Bhutanese vegetables suddenly required documentation and various other certificates.

This environment of extortion was made easier as the five journalists kept doing news that highlighted and criticized Bhutanese exports into Jaigaon.

A customs insider talks

The Bhutanese talked to a customs office insider in Jaigaon office who did not want his identify revealed.

He said that people do not face problems with the Land Customs office or LC which is 2 kilometers from the Phuentsholing gate. He said the LC office is in fact very helpful. 

He said the actual extortion is done by the Preventive Unit (PU) of the customs who are there in the 2 km stretch between the Phuentsholing gate and the LC office.

“When Bhutanese cars and trucks come in for repairs to Jaigaon it is the PU people sitting at zero point who do the extortion and this should actually not be happening given our free trade agreement,” said the customs source.

He said such extortion was not there before as Bhutanese cars could come and go for repairs but it started after the gates were shut. He said even if documentation is required it is the job of the PU to sensitize the people and let them off once instead of directly extorting so much money.

This source said that for many years Bhutanese vegetables could come in freely into Jaigaon but suddenly the media people (the five journalists) started doing news on such imports and the issue went to senior officials in the customs who asked about the documentations as per rules which had not been applied before.

Once documentation was required then the stopping of trucks carrying vegetable and the extortion started.

He said that another way that extortion happens is that the PU staff in this 2 km stretch misinform and scare traders into paying Nu 5,000 to Nu 6,000 per truck of consignment.

The PU in return ensure that the trucks do not have to go to the LC office for paper work.

The source said that when a truck carrying goods from Bhutan enters Jaigaon as per the rules it should report to the LC and make or handover a ‘Bill of Entry’ document which can also be prepared in advance and has to be made within 12 hours after a truck enters Jaigaon.

The bill of entry is part of customs clearance procedure where the customs will inspect the goods or the list, levy necessary taxes if applicable and then give a clearance with the documents.

The source said the Jaigaon LC is very helpful and gives clearance to even vegetable trucks with 15 to 20 minutes.

However, the PU staff have a sophisticated network developed with traders in Jaigaon and they contact all the merchants before their goods come in.

The source said that since most of the goods that enter Jaigaon go into local store houses the PU use a combination of fear and financial incentive against traders and trucks to pay them an amount and avoid all the paper work and also save some money on charges and taxes as the PU will not take the truck to the LC.

He gave the example of a consignment of trucks from Bhutan carrying 50 tons of potatoes.

He said there is no tax for import of potatoes but there is a INR 3,300 base rate per truck for plant quarantine charges and the charge goes up every five tons which will come to a total of INR 4,300 for plant quarantine charges.

Then to make the bill of entry agents charge INR 1,000 to 1,500 to 2,000 depending on the goods which are legal and permissible charges.

So if the charge is 2,000 then the total now is 4,300 plus 2,000 taking it to INR 6,300.

He said the PU will offer the trader a discount to pay them around 5,000 per truck and save the hassle of paper work, some time and also save some money.

Once the traders pay then the trucks are not taken to the Custom LC and are allowed to go to other parts of Jaigaon to unload goods.

The source said that reason this works is it plays on the fear of paperwork, time and of the unknown of traders which is not real as the LC does things very fast and efficiently, and its also works on the greed of saving a little money.

He said this will not work if the goods has to travel long distance to Siliguri or other areas as the truck will then be inspected in other areas and it will be in trouble if it does not have custom clearance. It works because most of the trucks empty in Jaigaon.

However, while some may think this serves both sides it is firstly illegal and secondly the existence of such an extortion system leads to more extortion in the future.

The source said that such extortion cannot happen at the Allay road for the Pasakha Industrial area as the LC there tracks the number of trucks and goods leaving and the PU have to give a report back to the LC.

On the issue of potatoes and vegetables, the source said that when the issue came up last year of it being in the restricted import list and also the requirement for certain documents to import them, India’s Director General of Foreign Trade made an immediate exception for Bhutan given the friendly relations.

The source said that such extortion was not there before, but it has developed in recent times among some customs and SSB people. 

A customs official reacting to the above said that till now there has been no official complaints over extortion on import of goods into India from Bhutan.

He said that customs have had a meeting with the Jaigaon garage representatives on the issue of Bhutanese vehicles being repaired in Jaigaon, but he said that there is a 2017 rule whereby certain documentation has to be done and cars more than seven years old cannot come for repairs.

The customs official said that it is not just the customs PU who are in this 2 km stretch but seizures are also made by the SSB and the local police.

Extortion by the five

Meanwhile in more information on the five journalists running an extortion racket a trader form Jaigaon said that the five had extorted INR 100,000 from him in August 2020.

He said that a Bhutanese friend of his had left a vehicle for repair with him, and he was using it to transport tobacco from his storage space to his shop when the five stopped his car though they are not authorized to do so and threatened to run news on it accusing him of smuggling if he did not pay up INR 500,000.

They also knew he was getting married that year and said that the news will result in his marriage breaking off which is a big social taboo in India and him being blacklisted in Bhutan.

He managed to negotiate the amount down to INR 150,000 and paid INR 100,000 to them.

However, they still published his news after which he approached a local political leader for justice who got the five to give the money back.

After the last story by The Bhutanese on the extortion racket in Jaigaon involving the five journalists, some SSB and customs there have seen a series of enquiries coming all the way from Delhi in the area including by various agencies.

The senior most local politician Passang Lama of the Trinamool Congress who is the President of the Kalchini Block under which Jaigaon falls  said that if Bhutanese people or traders face any issues then they can write to him and he will take action.

He said he has a zero tolerance policy for corruption and even if local party members are involved they will be thrown out of the party no matter how senior they are.

He said the TMC government in West Bengal supports friendly India-Bhutan ties.

On the issue of the five journalists he said there should be an investigation.

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