New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport has become a hub of gold smuggling, with more than 100 cases registered from January to June this year alone, according to information available with the Ministry of Finance. The Customs Department has seized gold worth around Rs 4,602 lakh between January and June from those trying to smuggle into India the yellow metal in the form of biscuits or jewellery. In terms of weight, around 150 kg of gold has been impounded by the Customs Department
According to highly placed sources in the Customs Department, gold is smuggled into India from places like Hong Kong, Dubai, Singapore, Bangkok and even Turkmenistan, where prices are relatively lower than in India and the differential translates into huge profits in India.
Sources in both the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), which is responsible for maintaining security at airports, and the Customs Department, said that much of the smuggling happens in connivance with the airport staff and sometimes with the involvement of the Customs officials themselves.
In March, two airport personnel working in ground-handling at IGI airport were held by Customs officials for facilitating the smuggling of gold from Bangkok in lieu of huge commissions. The Customs officials seized 215 grams of gold that were being smuggled in, in the shape of silver keys. Gold keys had been painted silver for that purpose.
In June, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) busted a gold smuggling syndicate operating at the Delhi and Dhaka international airports. The syndicate had smuggled over 100 kg of gold in the last one year, with the connivance of the ground staff and some Customs officials.
In the last three years, Customs officials have arrested over 19 people working with several departments of the ground handling section of IGI airport, for having a nexus with the gold smugglers.
A Customs officer told this correspondent, “In most of these cases, we have seen the involvement of the ground handling staff. They include persons working with different airlines in loading and unloading cargo, cleaning and collecting garbage and even supervisors whose duty is to maintain cleanliness at the airport. This is because they have been given passes to have access to the airport premises and are mostly not monitored closely. We have raised this issue with the Airports Authority as well as the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) to ensure proper screening of these people.”
Even CISF officers have intercepted several cases of gold smuggling at the IGI airport in the process of screening passengers for security purposes.
A senior CISF officer told The Sunday Guardian: “While screening baggage and monitoring CCTV footage at the airport, we have come across several cases of gold smuggling that we have handed over to the Customs. We monitor people’s movements on CCTVs and in case of suspicion, we detain them for questioning. We have seen cases where smugglers meet the airport staff near the toilets to hand over the gold; we have seen cases where smugglers have converted the gold into buttons of a transistor, painting them silver. They even wrap gold in aluminium foils to try and dodge the X-Ray machines.”
The involvement of Customs officers also came to light earlier this month when the DRI arrested two Customs officers from the IGI airport. They were facilitating smugglers to pass through the “green channel” smoothly. Officials at the DRI have revealed that the arrested Customs officials were helping the smugglers for the last one month and were in constant touch with the mastermind in Hong Kong.
Speaking to this newspaper on the condition of anonymity, a senior Customs officer said that the officers caught were suspended and an investigation was on.
The officer added that the shortage of staff in the Customs Department leads to several loopholes and constant monitoring of every person was not possible. “We have thousands and thousands of passengers travelling to and from the IGI airport and it’s not possible to screen everybody. We do it at random and based on intelligence inputs. The situation is aggravated due to the shortage of staff. Even if we screen one passenger every three minutes, we get to screen only 480 passengers in the whole day and this, in ratio with the number of passengers, is merely 1%,” he said.
He further added: “We need to upgrade our technology. We still do not have a database of all persons travelling through airports in India. There is no advanced mechanism to search suspicious objects and persons, yet we work on the basis of profiling and on the movement of persons we find suspicious.”
“There are also operational difficulties. For example, one has to declare cash if one is carrying more than $5,000, but how many do that? No foreign visitor is allowed to carry any gold into the country, but we cannot humanly check each and every individual. We have no such mechanism,” the officer lamented.