Govt to use AI, blockchain technology for seamless cargo movement

Zero human intervention in cross-border trade is something the finance ministry says it is exploring, using blockchain technology and artificial intelligence (AI) for cargo movement. 

Beside saving cost and time, it could help India vastly improve its ranking on the ‘trading across borders’ parameter under the ease of doing business ranking by the World Bank. 

The department of customs is exploring the methods mentioned earlier, as also use of robotics and machine learning. This is in line with the government’s digitisation agenda.

“Through these, a cargo or consignment will be cleared without human interface at all,” said a senior official. He said the department was looking at possible implementation by next year.

Blockchain, the underlying technology for cryptocurrencies, is essentially a distributed ledger that records transactions in sequential blocks, creating encrypted data that can be shared between several parties through the supply chain, updating these instantly, without risk of fraud. This will do away with the need for physical documents and its processing by customs officials.

Such a facility will initially be limited to certain importers or exporters. Members of the Authorised Economic Operator programme, for instance. This currently offers reduced examination and inspection, and acceptance of pre-arrival import declarations. Members get direct port entry, deferred duty payment facility, fast-tracking of adjudication and refunds, and risk-based assessment. 

“There will be other categories, as well, to which the facility will be extended,” said the official.

India is ranked 146 out of 190 countries on the World Bank’s ease of doing business ranking on the ‘trading across borders’ measure. It takes 267 hours or a little more than 11 days for clearance of an import consignment, against 8.7 hours for OECD countries. Some European nations already use a fully-automated system that offers end-to-end clearance of consignments. The cost per consignment in India is $536 as compared to $111.6 in OECD countries. 

“Cost and time will be significantly cut through the proposal,” said the official, adding that the proposed mechanism would require checks on machines only once or twice a year. Budget and cost are being worked out.

In his Budget speech for 2018-19, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had said the government would explore use of blockchain for ushering in a digital economy. Also that it would invest in research, training and skilling in robotics, AI, digital manufacturing and big data analysis this year, to transform the economy by combining cyber and physical systems.

Automated movement would also allow the customs department to better allocate its resources, including the time of its officials.