Riteshi Jancy Chakma, a student and businesswoman, started her business of selling Indian saris and salwar kameezes through a Facebook business page three months ago.
Jancy told the Dhaka Tribune she had started her business after being encouraged by a cousin who runs a similar business on Facebook.
She said: “I sell saris, salwar kameezes, and jewelry, all of which are from India. I upload photos of samples on Facebook first, and then take orders from buyers, which are then bought in by a ‘mule’.”
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Customs officials tend to be lenient towards travelers at the border, even if they are carrying a large amount of personal belongings Collected
Just like Jancy, there are many other online businesses that run without a letter of credit (LC) and rely heavily on their “mules” to supply the businesses.
Under the pseudonym Jamil Khan, the owner of a wholesale sari shop in Mirpur Benarashi Palli said to the Dhaka Tribune: “Most of the time we import saris from India, but we also seek the services of mules, who come to our shop on their own and show their sari collection at a cheaper price. If we like any of them, we buy them.”
When the Dhaka Tribune correspondents, posing as customers, asked a salesman at Mirpur Benarashi Palli about how many saris they order from India, he said: “Although mules sell products to us at a cheaper price, we do not get too many colour options for the saris bought from them. This is because are able to buy only one or two pieces of each type, to avoid duty fees at the border.”
“Most of the time we purchase saris in bulk, legally through LCs, to avoid risk of losing out on all available options. When bought in bulk, it costs about Tk 30-50 lakh, and there is no chance of loss,” he added.
Another wholesaler of Mirpur Benarashi Palli said there was a syndicate of around 100 mules who operate from Kolkata, India, and charge Tk600 for regular saris and Tk1000 for bridal saris and lehengas.
What is a “mule”?
Jancy’s cousin travels to India five to six times every year to bring in pre-ordered products. However, Jancy also relies on five to six other mules to also bring products for her online shop.
Customs Intelligence and Investigation Directorate (CIID) Joint Commissioner Saifur Rahman said: “As per customs rules, tourists can carry up to 65Kg in addition to their hand bags. Furthermore, they can carry a maximum of five to six of a single product like saris, salwar kameezes, cosmetics, and jewelry including gold; as long as they are within the given limit.”
“However, many people use this opportunity to carry products for resale, instead of their personal uses. This is the difficulty in trying to control mules. It is also difficult to differentiate between people who are travelers and those who are travelling to run their carrier business.”
He also said: “When people carry luggage that exceeds their given weight limits or have products that seem to be for business purposes, we usually seize them.”
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Immigration police claim to have seized over 17,000 saris and 16,000 salwar kameezes from the Amrakhali and ICP BGB check posts over the last five and a half months Collected
A mule who travels to Kolkata to bring pre-ordered clothes said she earns around Tk10,000 per week including her living and travel costs.
She said: “I have a multiple-entry visa. Getting an Indian visa is very easy now. I travel to Kolkata at least two times every week.”
How the saris cross the border
According to Jancy, crossing the border while carrying the products was not difficult. She said: “Sometimes, we pay some money to customs for extra products. But it is easy.”
Another online shop owner said: “Two of my cousins, who live in the United Kingdom, and I go to India, Nepal, Singapore and Malaysia four to five times every year. I carry products for my online shop in my personal luggage. It’s easy and profitable as there is no tax or VAT added to the products. We are able to meet customer demands and I never have anything unsold or any loss.”
“Sometimes I have to pay some money to customs officers. But we can cross the border quite easily with the products in my baggage most of the time.”
Also, CIID Director Dr Moinul Khan told the Dhaka Tribune that customs officers are often lenient to travelers at the borders even if they find anyone with a large number of personal products.
Trade laws for Indo-Bangladesh border
According to the new VAT Law, HS Code 6204.43.00 for synthetic fibers (sari) and HS Code 6204.43.00 is based on quality, ordinary, medium, super, premium, gorgeous or wedding quality products will have tariff values of is $7, $12, $20, and $40 per unit respectively.
According to Border Guard Bangladesh battalion-49 Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Arifur Haque, based on tip-offs they have seized 17,170 saris and 16,000 salwar kameez, worth Tk7.56cr, in the past five and a half months from the Amrakhali and ICP BGB check posts.
All of the seized goods are kept at the Benapole customs section.