Two years ago, the Customs Air Intelligence Unit (AIU) officials at the Karipur airport noticed a passenger who was a tad bit nervous. There was nothing suspicious in the X-ray scan but the officers decided to go with their gut feeling. The search ended in an eerie wig, fitted on a freshly tonsured head. A layer of 907 gram gold compound sheet was placed under the wig of the Malappuram-native who arrived from Abu Dhabi.
The ingenious ways of the smugglers are baffling. The ‘conduits', ‘carriers', and their operators are testing the prowess of the official machinery with their methods.
Officers often land in trouble as they go by their ‘gut feeling’ and search ‘possessions’ which look innocuous. There was a case of Customs officers landing in soup after they forcefully broke open a microwave oven suspecting that the owner might have concealed gold in it. Many officers take such risks, earning them bouquets and brickbats.
Just as we know, Kerala’s love for the yellow metal is famous and it has seen a major spike after 2012. Smuggling, which was rampant till the 70s and 80s, saw a downturn for almost 20 years following the economic liberalisation of 1991, which allowed people to bring gold on a nominal duty charge.
Smuggling gained momentum again after 2012, when the government suddenly spiked the import duty to 10 per cent to check the increasing current account deficit.
The most common method of smugglers now is to conceal capsule-shaped gold compounds, wrapped in condoms, in the rectum. “In 90 per cent cases, we act on the basis of specific tip-offs. Gold concealed inside the body goes unnoticed in metal detection,” said a Customs officer.
The methods to conceal gold in baggage range from use of chemicals like Aqua Regia, a solution of nitrohydrochloric acid. “As Aqua Regia can dissolve gold, a bottle of the solution might go unnoticed during baggage inspections. As passengers returning from foreign countries carry liquor bottles, Aqua Regia bottles also pass. Gold being a high-density metal, will be visible as a thick dark image in the scanner in the form of bullion. That is why smugglers try to make a compound by powdering and mixing it with milk powder as well,” an officer said.
Officers said it is now commonplace to hide it in electronic devices like microwave oven, music systems or mixer grinder.
Now, ‘the freedom of the lightness’ offered by the ‘gold compounds’ are offering smugglers new avenues. Last month, the AIU team at Kannur airport seized 302 grams worth gold in the form of a thin paste concealed within a double-layered trouser worn by the passenger. In July, AIU Kozhikode seized 1.3 kg gold which was concealed in a similar way by mixing the gold compound with an adhesive and pasted in the layers of a cotton trouser. Gold also takes curious forms like the press button in a cute baby dress, battery case of emergency lamp (both seized by Kozhikode AIU in June), inner layer of a mixer grinder (seized by Kannur AIU in June) etc.
There is at least one or two seizures at one of the four airports in Kerala. Officers say the most common method is ‘body concealment.’ “As carrying gold in the body is difficult and the value is often below Rs 1 crore, the accused, after arrest, is often released on bail. The smuggling of gold worth above Rs 2 crore is a non-bailable offense and COFEPOSA Act is charged for preventive detention on repeat offenders,” the officer said.
So, what can the Customs officers do if they suspect that the passenger has hidden gold inside the body? “We will ask them to jump. Normally the passengers themselves would remove it and hand it over. Some might resist and then we will have to take them to hospital for X-ray,” said the official.
Male and female passengers, who return from abroad after a stay of six months or more, are allowed to bring gold worth Rs 50,000 and Rs 1 lakh respectively. Gold above this permitted quantity will be charged at an import duty of 12.5%.
Smuggling also takes place with the support of other staff at the airport. “Sometimes, the smuggled goods are hidden inside the washroom, which will be taken out with the support of airport staff,” an officer said.
The largest ever haul was 30 kg gold smuggled using the ‘diplomatic cargo’ tag. This had kicked up a political storm in Kerala. The second largest was the seizure of 25 kg gold in Thiruvananthapuram in 2019, where some Customs officers too were included in the list of accused.
India Gold Policy Centre at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, has estimated that around 300 tonnes of gold reach the country annually through black market supply chain. “Major share of this reaches through four major airports in Kerala and the 589-km coastline of the state. However, customs and police catch only a few. As per our assessment each flight has minimum four carriers. What makes it attractive is that the smugglers will get a profit of Rs 5.20 lakh in brining 1 kg gold. With such huge amount of gold being smuggled, its is high time for the government to withdraw the import duty or reduce it to at least 2 %,” said S Abdul Nazar, treasurer of All Kerala Gold and Silver Merchants Association.
Nazar said most of the smuggled gold is transported to neighbouring states.