For now, operation Sagar Kavach has stopped the decade-old smuggling of diesel on the high seas off Mumbai’s coast — or at least that’s what the Mumbai police claim.
In the 1980s, cut-price diesel was the lifeblood that fuelled the Mumbai mafia of the time — run by men like Dawood Ibrahim and his ally-turned-adversary Chhota Rajan — powering boats that they used to smuggle gold, silver and guns into the city.
Thus began the era of diesel smuggling, with gangsters like Ibrahim and Rajan, based at ports in and around Mumbai, illegally lifting diesel from ships docked at those ports, or from fuel tankers.
Today, the racket hasn’t been finished entirely — a few of Ibrahim’s cronies reportedly still smuggle diesel off coastal Mumbai, resulting in a loss of Rs 1,000 crore to the state exchequer. “If diesel can be smuggled this easily in trawlers, so can material that proves to be a terror threat to the city,” said R K Padmanabhan, additional commissioner of police (south region).
Coastal police officers said after the 26/11 terror attack – which saw gunmen enter the city by sea – the Mumbai coastline is under a tighter vigil. Last year, 25 cases of diesel smuggling were lodged; this year, four boats transporting smuggled diesel were intercepted.
Padmanabhan, who began the crackdown on the racket, spoke of the arrest of eight middlemen who were buying illegal diesel for Rs 18 per litre (its current market rate is Rs 37), then selling it at a profit.
Explaining the modus operandi, Padmanabhan said crew on ships coming in from oil-producing countries in the Gulf, save fuel by slowing down or switching off their engines. After anchoring on the high seas, they sell the conserved diesel to middlemen, who buy it at half the cost – sometimes less than that. They in turn sell it to fishermen for a profit. The excess is also sold to petrol pumps.
“Those on the mother ship make a profit even if they sell their diesel at less than half-price, since their cost is very low,” said Padmanabhan. “After the arrest of the eight middlemen this year, I stepped up vigilance and as of now the smuggling has stopped.”
He admitted they have so far not established a direct link between the diesel smuggling and the underworld. “We’ve transferred from Yellowgate to Sewri (in less critical positions) three policemen suspected of being involved with the mafia,” Padmanabhan added.