In August, India won its first ever gold medal in the FIDE (International Chess Federation) Online Chess Olympiad. The 12-member team had done it all by itself – without any support from the Indian Chess Federation. When it won, every one in public office rushed to praise and congratulate them. Even PM Modi tweeted saying he admired their “hard work and dedication”.
The customs department officials seemed unimpressed, though.
On 2 December, team India vice captain Srinath Narayanan tweeted that he had to wait a week to receive the team's gold medals, which landed in India last month. “It reached from Russia to India in three days, but took more than a week to reach from Bangalore to Chennai, and had to pay customs duty!” he wrote.
“It was dispatched around the 19th or 20th [November],” Narayanan told Mint over phone. “Harikrishna (a team member) got his medal on the 21st. He lives in Prague and got it hassle free. For us, it came to Bangalore on the 23rd. Then it took a whole week.”
Narayanan said he had to provide multiple documents to customs officials before he was allowed to collect the medals for the team. “They (customs officials) had opened up the package and asked me what was inside, and what it was made of. I had to give them an official document on the chemical composition.”
After the package reached Chennai – where Narayanan lives – the courier service DHL Express India Pvt Ltd. asked him to pay customs duty: ₹6,300. “I was so tired of all this, I just paid it.”
Only, he didn’t need to. According to a central government notification on 30 June 2017, medals and trophies won by Indian sports team members for participating in international tournaments are exempt from customs duties.
Besides, as Narayanan says, a gold medal never really is a gold medal. “It doesn’t even contain gold or silver. They use different metals to achieve this colour.”
It isn’t the first time Indian chess players have run into customs’ red tape. In his autobiography Mind Master, world champion Viswanathan Anand writes about how it took eight months to get a customs clearance for computer he’d received for prepping his games.
“I was allowed to bring the computer home, after some timely intervention by Manuel Aaron, who spoke to the Customs officials and also wrote critically about the incident in a national daily,” Anand says in the book.
That was 1987. And this is 2020.
A.K. Jyotishi, chief commissioner of customs at Bengaluru, said that he would look into the incident. “The rule might have been applied without any deviation. If it is so, that benefit will be extended without any problem. We’re proud that somebody has represented India and brought laurels,” he told Mint over phone.
The Chennai customs authorities did not respond to phone calls over their office landline. A spokesperson from DHL Express, the courier service in charge of delivering the medals, said, "As per the government’s regulations, items received as part of sporting teams representing India can be exempt from duty if applicable paperwork is provided by the Consignee and the Customs accept the declarations."
DHL did not clarify if Srinath was indeed missing paperwork. "We are not at liberty to discuss details of customer shipments but we have been in touch with the customer to explain the matter," the spokesperson said.
Update on 4 December:
A day after this report was published, GM Srinath Narayanan tweeted that a representative from the Sports Ministry got in touch and promised him support. The courier firm DHL Express too reached out, apologized, and promised a refund. The Bangalore customs department, in a text message, told Mint, "A report has been called from the concerned section and the same will be communicated to you accordingly."