Mumbai: The central intelligence unit of Indian customs here has launched a series of cases alleging import duty evasion by nine infrastructure firms, including well-known names in the field such as Punj Lloyd Ltd, Era Constructions (India) Ltd and Gammon India Ltd.
The companies are alleged to have diverted construction machinery, imported without customs duty specifically for projects financed by the United Nations, other international aid organizations and approved by the government, to private projects, thus evading customs duty.
The money involved in the case is not large in itself, but the development is significant since these firms are involved in construction of roads for projects approved by the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) and aided by the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and the UN.
Under the Customs Act 1962, equipment imported into India for completion of infrastructure projects financed by the UN or an international organization and approved by the government is exempt from customs duty. The firms had imported machinery, such as piling rigs for construction of roads, and had availed the exemption.
Core of the problem (Graphic)
“We have already booked cases against nine firms and have recovered over Rs12 crore against such illegal import of piling rigs,” said R.K. Mahajan, commissioner (general) of customs, Mumbai.
Apart from Punj Lloyd, Era Constructions and Gammon India, the list of companies provided by the customs includes Afcon Infrastructure Ltd, Ircon International Ltd, Meher Foundation and Civil Engineers Pvt. Ltd, Villayati Ram Mittal Pvt. Ltd (New Delhi), Vijay M Mistry Construction Pvt. Ltd and Maytas Infra Pvt. Ltd.
Each piling rig costs around Rs4 crore and attracts close to Rs1 crore import duty.
“We have also seized piling rigs worth Rs8.25 crore,” Mahajan said. According to him, these companies have evaded customs duty of at least Rs20 crore and the amount could be even more as the investigation is not yet complete.
The infrastructure projects are spread across India. For instance, Punj Lloyd, one of the largest engineering and construction firms engaged in infrastructure projects, had imported piling rigs for its two NHAI-approved projects in Assam, but, according to the customs intelligence unit, these rigs were diverted to New Delhi.
“The company had rented out one of the machines to Delhi Metro Rail Corp. Ltd,” claimed a senior officer of customs who did not wish to be named.
In an email response to Mint’s queries, Punj Lloyd said the company “has not been booked for any evasion of government duty.”
However, the firm admitted it has been “summoned by the central intelligence unit, Mumbai customs, seeking certain clarifications/information pertaining to import of hydraulic operated self-propelled piling rig along with accessories,” imported by it under customs duty exemption scheme.
“Unfortunately, by the time such rig, along with its accessories, touched the boundaries of India it was realized that the said rig etc. could not be optimally utilized at the Guwahati to Nalbari Section of NH31 in Assam project due to non- availability of work... Since the machinery so imported was worth crores of rupees and keeping it idle would not only result in decaying and deterioration but also have an adverse financial impact...the company deemed it prudent to deploy the same to some other appropriate site,” the company wrote in its email.
It admitted that the rig was deployed at the DMRC project “which included construction of roads.” Stating that “by utilizing the...rig at the DMRC project we were in a position to keep the same in running condition,” the company said in its email that the rigs would be used at the Assam project “the moment we receive a green signal...from NHAI.”
“We believe we have acted within the intent and framework of the customs notification and the undertaking and there is no violation of any nature whatsoever and your source on information about the tax evasion on our part is unfounded and baseless,” the email went on to say.
The New Delhi-based Era Constructions, now known as Era Infra Engineering Ltd, was awarded two contracts for construction of roads in Chhattisgarh. However, according to the customs, the machinery was allegedly rerouted to other parts of India. “During the investigation, one of the machines was found at the NTPC Ltd’s site in Dadri in Uttar Pradesh. The other was found in Haryana,” Mahajan said.
Era Infra’s vice-president (commercial) Anil Bhasin said the firm had paid customs duty and interest for the equipment, which was shifted to other nationally important projects of government and public sector undertakings. According to him, the company diverted a few equipment that were not required at the assigned projects to other sites. It actually wanted to return these equipment, but could not do so as there was no provision to return such equipment. “The customs duty for such equipment was paid,” insisted Bhasin.
Gammon India, a Mumbai-based construction firm, according to Mahajan, has violated the rules by diverting machinery to another location for private use. However, he declined to disclose the location where the equipment was transferred and said the case was under investigation.
Gammon India, too, denied being involved in customs duty evasion. “There may be a possibility that some construction companies who have imported equipment under such exemptions could have utilized the same for projects other than for which such exemptions are applicable like, real estate, housing projects, shopping malls, etc. To clarify your doubts, Gammon does not undertake real estate/housing projects which could have been a potential misuse as per your concern. In fact, central intelligence unit had enquired about the utilization from all the importers who had imported equipment under the above exemptions,” said Umakant Tiwari, assistant general manager (procurement), Gammon India, in an email response.
As of Tuesday night, Mint was unable to immediately reach all the companies mentioned by the customs for their comments.