No barriers for genuine relief aid, efforts to prevent misuse
By Marisa de Silva
Despite Customs relaxing its regulations to entertain humanitarian aid, strict checks are being maintained on aid coming to individuals and organisations in an effort to prevent misuse of the concessions granted, officials said.

In response to the appeals and the influx of international generosity, the Finance Ministry has issued a directive to Sri Lanka Customs to release all aid, free of all duty and other levies, while general controls too have been lifted with regard to incoming aid, Mr. M.H.R. Tissera, head of the special relief facilitation unit said. All relief aid being sent into the country via air or sea have been given various tax exemptions, for as long as aid keeps flowing in or the Ministry instructs otherwise, Mr. Tissera said.

"As it is going to be a continuous process of aid flow, there must be continuous facilitation as well" he added. As it stands all aid entering the country is completely tax and duty free and is also exempt from exchange, Sri Lanka Standards Institute (SLSI) and certain import controls, he said. He said that in addition to sea and air cargo, donors could even send aid via the postal service or as unaccompanied baggage, for they too receive the same concessions.

In addition, measures have been taken to clear relief aid as swiftly as possible, Mr. Tissera said. "Excluding a few exceptions, there have been little or no delays and we have even cleared about 100 consignments up to now" he said.

However, the sea cargo consignments are still to come in, with a few shiploads of aid from India already cleared, he said. Generally, there is no inspection of the goods, unless there is a particular reason to do so. This is all meant to accelerate the clearing procedure, he said.

If needed, a random check is conducted. Otherwise, relief lorries are sent to the runway itself, and goods are transferred directly from the aircraft to the lorries, he said.

Goods sent via foreign government institutions, diplomatic missions or first class NGOs such as the Red Cross, are released to their counterparts at this end, on submission of preliminary documents (e.g. airway bill/ bill of lading) and necessary identification, Mr. Tissera said.

However, if private organisations or individuals have collected aid and are sending it via air or sea cargo, they are not released to random individuals at this end, he added. These goods, if belonging to the medical or medical equipment category are handed over to Health Ministry officials and if not medical, to the Social Welfare Ministry, Mr. Tissera said.

However, if donors have a preferred destination for their goods they can make a request of it to either Ministry and make arrangements for its transport there, he said. This procedure is being taken as a precautionary measure, said Mr. Tissera, as otherwise there will be plenty of people who would make use of this opportunity to abuse the system.

Representatives of the two aforesaid Ministries are working alongside Customs officials at both the Harbour and Air Cargo Terminals, Mr. Tissera said. Although aid is still coming mostly in the form of immediate aid (food, clothing, medicines), in time to come this aid will be replaced by more reconstruction oriented material, he said.

The Sri Lanka Ports Authority, Sri Lanka Navy, SriLankan Airlines, Sri Lanka Air Force and the Airport and Aviation Authorities are some of the other key players involved in this facilitation process, Mr. Tissera said.

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