Bangalore: A proposal to install equipment that can scan cargo containers at a dozen of India’s top ports has been delayed because of disagreement over who should be in charge of the process: the customs department or the ports themselves, according to several people familiar with the matter. None of them was willing to be named given the sensitivity of the issue, especially in the light of recent terror attacks in the country that make it imperative that cargo entering the country be scanned.

The customs department has claimed jurisdiction over container scanners saying it is its responsibility to assess the value of the goods coming into the country, said a person familiar with the issue.

A customs department spokesperson declined to comment.

Port authorities, however, said they are responsible for ensuring that containers coming into India’s ports do not contain arms, ammunition or other banned materials.

Secured waterfront? A file photo of containers stacked at the Jawaharlal Nehru Port. It handles close to 60% of the country’s container cargo and is the only port in India that has scanners to check incoming containers. Ashesh Shah / Mint

Only 10% of import containers that land at the port are scanned and are chosen randomly by the electronic data interchange system at the port, he said.

Of the two scanners at JN Port, one is a mobile unit while the other has been installed at a container freight station about 4km from the port, and is run by the state-owned Central Warehousing Corp. Ltd. Both scanners have been installed by, and are maintained by, the customs department.

Export containers are not scanned, but goods are inspected by customs and excise officials before they are loaded into containers, said a official of the rank of commissioner at Mumbai customs.

Given the large, and growing, volumes of container cargo passing through the port, Mumbai customs had sent a proposal to the government about two years back to buy and install four more scanners at the port, said a commissioner in the department.

Around the same time, JN Port secured approval from its board to buy a scanner after officials seized four containers loaded with guns. The port arranged for the new scanner to be installed inside the port and operated by the Central Industrial Security Force, said the port official cited earlier.

However, the plan hit a wall after the customs department claimed scanning was its prerogative.

The customs department has also sought government approval to install at least two scanners—one mobile and one fixed—each at Chennai, Tuticorin, Cochin, Kandla, Kolkata, Paradip, New Mangalore, Mormugao, Visakhapatnam, Mundra, Pipavav and Mumbai ports. Each such scanner costs anywhere between Rs25 crore and Rs50 crore, depending on specifications.

“At a recent meeting called by the Union shipping ministry to discuss the matter, it was suggested that the issue could be jointly examined by the customs and ports from the customs duty as well as security angle," said an official who attended the meeting, adding that a decision on who will buy the scanners is yet to be taken.