Smuggling is back at Kerala airports as hiked import duty and restrictions make the yellow metal even more precious. With a 400 per cent jump in arrests, 300 per cent in the value seized, Shaju Philip reports on another phenomenon — flights laden with gold
It’s raining gold at Kerala’s Kozhikode international airport. Every plane landing from the Middle East here now carries 40-80 kg of the precious metal, translating into Customs duties between Rs 86.8 lakh and Rs 1.74 crore. That’s just one flight, one airport. The state has two other international airports, at Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram, and the quantity of gold being brought in there is just slightly lower. Kerala gets an average of 120 flights from the Middle East a week. Do the maths.
The UPA government first hiked the import duty on gold in January 2012, raising it to 2 per cent, from Rs 300 charged per 10 grams earlier. It was raised to 4 per cent in the budget for 2012-13, 6 per cent in January 2013, 8 per cent on June 5 and finally 10 per cent in August. The government hoped that the steps would check India’s rush for gold — and hence its burgeoning current account deficit.
The rush, obviously, continues. What is being seen at Kerala airports, officials suspect, is smugglers using passengers as legal carriers of gold since the last month, ever since the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) busted a few gangs, caught bringing in gold using mainly young women. Indians who have stayed abroad for at least six months are allowed to legally bring in up to 1 kg of gold, with import duty paid in foreign currency. Indians travelling abroad can get in gold jewellery worth up to Rs 50,000 in case of men, and Rs 1 lakh in case of women, duty-free.
Customs data show that 1,983 kg of gold, mostly in the form of bars, was brought into Kozhikode after paying duty in 2013. There is a duty in dollars amounting to Rs 2.17 lakh on each kilogramme. In November alone, 236 kg of gold landed at the airport. On a December day, the airport saw a flight with 98 passengers bringing in 98 kg of gold. At the Kochi international airport, 3,187 passengers officially brought in 282.65 kg in 2013. Thiruvananthapuram saw 221 passengers bring in 34.37 kg during the last year.
While some of these passengers may be bringing in the metal for personal use, the large quantities make it clear that what is being seen is disguised smuggling.
It is after nearly 23 years that gold smuggling has returned to the country’s airports, particularly in states like Kerala with a sizeable NRI population. The abolition of the Gold Control Act had opened the door to gold imports. Introduced in 1962, the Act banned individuals from owning gold in the form of bars and coins. In 1990, in the face of a foreign exchange crisis, India pledged 40 tonnes of gold with the Bank of England. When liberalisation came and the licence raj was abolished, the Act was also repealed.
Passengers were allowed to bring in 10 kg and 5 kg of gold at different periods.
In the second half of the ’90s, the Kozhikode airport in north Kerala — catering mainly to Malappuram district, home to 18 per cent of the state’s expatriates — came to be known as the country’s golden airport with huge legal arrivals apart from what can be presumed was smuggled in. Towards the end of the ’90s, gold smuggling ceased to exist as international and national prices were nearly in the same range.
The import duty hike as well as restrictions on gold at home has once again made that picture heavily lopsided.
The profit that can be made on 1 kg of gold brought in from the Middle East can be as high as Rs 4.60 lakh. After paying the duty, this is Rs 1.25 lakh to Rs 1.50 lakh. The price differential — with gold prices crashing globally in 2013 but not by much in India — means 1 kg gold now entails larger profits than 5 kg earlier.
Between April and November 2013, the DRI arrested 206 people for gold smuggling across India, a jump of over 400 per cent over last year’s figure of 38. The DRI booked 576 cases worth Rs 211 crore in April-November 2013-14, compared to 617 cases worth Rs 52 crore during the April-December period in last fiscal, showing a jump of over 300 per cent in amount seized.
Customs and DRI sources admit lacunae in the system. A source said, “As per the law, we are not required to look into a passenger’s financial background. Our concern is only whether the person has stayed abroad for six months and whether he can pay Customs duty in foreign exchange. At present, the smugglers are using low-paid NRIs who are attracted to the commission, which ranges between Rs 50,000 and Rs 70,000.”
Kochi Customs Commissioner Dr K N Raghavan says all the seizures that had taken place were following intelligence inputs. “Gold smuggling had come down in recent years. We are now brushing up our intelligence network,” he adds.
As a first step, officials say smugglers collect from travel agents lists of Indian passengers who have booked tickets home. Their associates back in India then do a background check on the potential carriers for them. Those selected are approached, and coached on what explanation they can give to Customs, if asked, on how they got the money to purchase the gold on them.
Before the passengers board the flight, with the gold bars and the documents, the agents in the Gulf MMS their photographs — identifying them and the dress they are wearing — to associates back in India, who wait outside the airport or at pre-designed places to collect the gold. To prevent the passengers from running away with the gold, criminal gangs hired by the smugglers keep a watch around the airport.
Apart from legal carriers, gold is smuggled strapped on the body, or concealed in various goods. Gold has been seized in form of staple pins, TV capacitors, laptop batteries and shoe soles. “Passengers are getting involved in large numbers, even high-profile people like diplomats. Typically these carriers fly at least twice a month,” an official says, adding that most of the smuggling is via land and air route.
Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar are the main countries from where gold is being smuggled into the country via the land route while Dubai, Bangkok and Singapore are the main centres for air route. As regards sea route, most of it is being channelled from Sri Lanka through fishermen.
Several passengers coming from Colombo to Kochi have also been caught with the yellow metal recently. The DRI has seized over 60 kg of gold bars from passengers and fishermen coming from Sri Lanka. Once gold has made its way in, it is transported across the country mainly on Rajdhani trains.
“The border with these countries (on the land route) is highly porus. They have a low tariff regime as well as the supply of gold in these countries is more than the consumption,” a DRI official says. What puts Kerala apart is the use of legal carriers.
Once the gold has been handed over to the smuggling gang, it is taken to either jewellers who are part of the racket or to melting units, generally dealing with scrap gold or used ornaments. Some financially sound passengers also directly bring in the gold to sell it to traders in Kerala.
Sources said hawala dealers too have recently switched to gold. The money collected from the Gulf to be distributed in Kerala is converted into gold bars, which are sold back home.
Koduvally in Kozhikode is the hub of this hawala business. A small town along the Kozhikode-Bangalore highway, it has 100-odd single-room gold merchants. A large number of youths in Koduvally have taken up the job of hawala carriers.
Customs sources say although the entire gold, coming through legal or illegal routes, finally reaches the gold merchants, including the leading ones, there is no evidence to link smugglers to them.
Last month, the DRI, which falls under the Central Board of Excise and Customs, had a breakthrough, when an alleged kingpin who was arrested, Shahabas, said that he had sold gold to one of the directors of the Kozhikode-based Malabar Gold and Diamonds, a leading chain.
Shahabas gave a written statement to the DRI that he had given 10 kg of smuggled gold to Asharaf. The Malabar Gold and Diamonds director, who was made an accused, also told the DRI that he was assigned to source gold from Shahabas. The DRI later examined the corporate office of the group as part of the investigation. Apart from Shahabas, two alleged couriers were arrested, but later got bail. Asharaf was not arrested.
A DRI official admits that other passengers too have told them that they were bringing in the gold to be sold at leading jewellery firms.
Bhima Jewellers managing director Suhas Rao has no hesitation acknowledging the grey market that exists following the high import duty. “The banks do not have enough stock of bullion and hence we now depend on NBFCs (non-banking financial companies) for supply. Besides, scrap gold and exchange of old ornaments also keep the business going for firms believing in ethical business… However, they still find it difficult to source gold.”
Further, Rao points out, the annual gold demand of the country is 1,500 tonnes. Of this, Kerala has a business of 150 tonnes. Of this, 20 moves in the grey market. As per prevailing prices, the grey market can see profits of Rs 100 per gram of gold. This works out to a huge profit. “Maybe 5 per cent of the industry stakeholders are benefiting from the new gold policy,” says Rao.
Commissioner Raghavan admits that they had not found any solid links between a smuggler and a gold merchant. “Investigations are going on. When we bust a link, the next links get more vigilant,” he says.
Smuggling has come a long way from old times when it largely involved powerful groups with underworld links. Gold was brought in large quantities on vessels landing at the north Kerala coast. The increased coastal vigil after the Mumbai terror attack, however, made the sea route risky.
Using passengers as carriers or carriers as passengers, officials admit, is the least risky option. While the chances of a carrier escaping with the smuggled gold are very less, the consignment is delivered within a day, and the gold doesn’t have to be concealed in a different form, a time-consuming exercise. Plus, carriers do not require any training, instead frequent fliers have an idea of how Customs officials behave and how to dodge them.
“Many operators of the past have become either religious or moved to a mainstream business. Now the Customs is confronting new, young operators,” says a Customs official.
So while earlier carriers were enticed with a free ticket home, with the smugglers targeting those expatriates who did not have enough money, now the first choice for the job are educated women. “These carriers are not opting for this task as they need it. They want to turn rich overnight,” says an official.
Chances are many of the carriers traversing daily across Kerala airports come from the north Kerala towns of Kasargode and Thrissur, apart from Koduvally.
What many of these carriers don’t know though is that Customs is feeding the Income Tax department with details of the passengers bringing in 1 kg gold or above.
“In the next assessment year, these passengers would be liable to explain their source of income as a step towards levying wealth tax. Many of the passengers who work as conduits for smugglers are unaware of the impending trap from Income Tax. The passengers who have declared gold as their own purchase are liable to give a source of income,” sources say.
With inputs from Shruti Srivastava in Delhi