Customs authorities are clearing desperately needed medical equipment with unprecedented speed to help oxygen-starved hospitals attend to victims of the devastating second wave of the pandemic.
The Delhi airport handled 318 oxygen concentrators that landed in an Air India flight from the United States, which customs authorities say in a record-breaking 20 minutes on April 26.
As a result, medical equipment was unloaded, counted, tagged, checked for damage, sorted into sets, and sent to warehouses for quick dispatch to hospitals facing acute scarcity of oxygen. Delhi customs authorities claim the shipment was cleared within a record 20 minutes after the Air India plane from Atlanta landed and the cargo was unloaded.
While the jury is out on whether the time taken was really that low, Delhi airport authorities agree that even considering emergency clearance norms, the average time now being taken to facilitate the movement of life-saving medical equipment has fallen to levels that were difficult to imagine earlier.
Officials said they tweaked the procedure to ensure quick customs clearance for emergency supplies.
"This could be done simply because we were prepared for such a major consignment and it was preapproved for fast clearance. That doesn't mean the normal rules don't apply. While the cargo has been quickly cleared, a dedicated team of officials will have to continue to perform inspection and fill in the paperwork now. Normally this happens before the cargo is cleared. Now, the process has just been reversed," an official of the Delhi Customs Zone said.
As bilateral support from other nations increase, a flurry of medical equipment and supplies have begun to stream into India. In the early hours of April 27, 100 ventilators and 95 oxygen concentrators reached Delhi from the United Kingdom were quickly sent off to warehouses for unpacking and distribution.
Delhi customs officials say the fast clearances have prepared them for dealing with the scheduled arrival of eight high-capacity oxygen generators from France - each providing yearlong Oxygen for 250 beds - in the next few days. "The machines are as heavy and unwieldy as they are fragile and we need to be careful. Special arrangements are being made to unload and transport it quickly," the official mentioned above said.
Given the massive geographical spread of the pandemic and the rising need for oxygen in almost all corners of the country, the government has also directed customs units in smaller airports to get ready for consignments. On April 27, customs authorities facilitated clearance of two large ISO tankers used for carrying oxygen, which arrived from Thailand at the Indian Air Force Base in West Bengal's Panagarh.
The speed up delivery, the government decided to receive the tankers in Panagarh, more than two hours away from Kolkata, so that it could reach the industrial units currently manufacturing oxygen in the state's hinterland.
New rules of business
Officially, all airports and seaports with significant customs field formations have already implemented the government's new rules on bringing in life saving medicines and machines, prodded on by the Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs (CBIC) and the Prime Ministers Office, officials say.
On April 26, a dedicated helpdesk went live to handle queries related to COVID-related imports, and to handhold the industry for expeditious customs clearance. It includes a dedicated cell to answer queries on availability of duty exemption benefits and clearance procedures. Registration requirements from various ministries have also been compiled and along with an online form, seeks to redress complaints fast.
However, many businesses and importing entities remain reticent about the latest developments, arguing that customs procedures remain as complicated as ever and the rules are implemented without taking into account the situation on the ground.
"To deal with this, the government has nominated zonal level nodal officers on the ground and their contact details and shared with industry and customs clearing agents," a CBIC official said.
Officials say fast clearance is not only taking place for bilateral shipments from other nations, but also for commercial imports. Last week, the government removed customs duties on medical-grade oxygen, oxygen concentrators, oxygen generators, cryogenic cylinders, tanks and transportation tanks, ventilators and a large number of other industrial and medical equipment.
The government expects most of the new oxygen production and distribution capacity in the country to be imported by private entities in the short term. Specific instructions have thus been given to expeditiously clear commercial shipments. CBIC has showcased the example of an NGO, Ratna Nidhi Charitable Trust, which managed to receive it's order of 500 oxygen concentrators within 2 hours of the goods landing in Mumbai airport on a flight from Singapore.