In a two-month operation, Customs authorities at Nhava Sheva port busted a major red sanders (protected tree species) smuggling racket, seizing around two lakh kg worth Rs 6.5 crore.
Red sanders is protected under the Wildlife Protection Act. Officials seized 12 containers, which were to be smuggled to Dubai. The racket first came to light when two months ago, a Customs House Agent (CHA) noticed his name being misused in various documents to enable the export of a few consignments.
He alerted Customs authorities who off-loaded two containers from a vessel on its way to Dubai. Inside the container, they found red sanders, then began a methodical check of all suspicious consignments.
No arrests have been made yet and Customs authorities are searching for the mastermind. A senior Customs official said the smugglers declared the consignments as garments, chemicals and other export material to avoid suspicion.
“To further avoid scrutiny of the containers at Nhava Sheva port, the smugglers showed that the containers were factory stuffed (packed in the factory) under the supervision of Central Excise officials,” the official said.
According to the rules, when containers are packed in a factory, Central Excise officials supervise it, sealing the containers and signing documents before sending them to the destination port. Since this packing is done under the supervision of Excise officials, they are not checked at ports.
In this case, the investigating team found that the smugglers not only misused the CHA’s name, they also forged documents and signatures of some Central Excise officials. They also found that the consignments were declared as having a low value, to minimise the chance of inspection.
After seizing the two containers two months ago, the Customs team began seizing more of them following a tight watch.
Officials said nabbing the masterminds immediately will be difficult since neither they nor their men accompany the containers. Typically, a driver takes the container to the docks after clearance by Customs.
“In cases where containers are shown as factory stuffed under the supervision of Central Excise officials, they are cleared and sent to the docks without scrutiny unless there is specific information to the contrary,” the official said. At the docks, the gang keeps a watch — once their consignment is cleared, they load it on to a vessel.
“If the consignment is seized, the gang members simply slip away,” he added. Customs officials suspect Dubai was only a transit point, and the consignments would more likely have gone further to China, Malaysia or Singapore.