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India has the caviar, covertly

The world has lately been missing its ultimate culinary sheik, but not Mumbai. More than six months after the ban, most five-star hotels serve or use caviar in their kitchens. Aditya Ghosh reports.
Hindustan Times | By Aditya Ghosh, Mumbai
UPDATED ON APR 14, 2008 01:35 AM IST

The world has lately been missing its ultimate culinary sheik, but not Mumbai. Here, champagne never had to divorce its age-old lover, caviar.

Despite a ban and a red alert on caviar trade from the Convention on International Traffic in Endangered Species (CITES) since September 2007, lack of coordination between India’s Wildlife Crime Bureau and the customs department has ensured that imports continue.

More than six months after the ban, most five-star hotels in Mumbai serve or use caviar in their kitchens. A 30g serving of caviar, which two friends can polish off over a quick drink, costs around Rs 10,000 at these hotels.

“We serve caviar as a dish and as garnish, but you will not find it on the menu,” said a spokesperson for Leela Kempinski in Andheri (east). Ditto at Juhu’s J.W. Marriott. The city’s iconic Taj Mahal Hotel in Colaba, however, has it on its menu and its Melba toasts.

Last week, the customs department, in a letter to the Wildlife Crime Bureau, admitted it never stopped or checked import of the contentious item because it did not have any information on the ban.

According to the department, the Wildlife Crime Bureau has only now sent it the red alert dispatched to the Ministry of Environment and Forests by CITES — the UN’s wing that controls trade in wildlife products. “We were in no position to know that CITES has banned this import internationally as we never received instruction,” said J.C. Chako, additional customs commissioner, Mumbai.

Caviar is the processed, salted eggs of certain species of fish, especially the sturgeon, found in subtropical and sub-Arctic waters of North America and Eurasia. None are found south of the equator.

Over-exploitation for caviar production has led to a drastic drop in sturgeon stocks worldwide, which prompted CITES to list the species on its red alert list.

Sources at the ministry said the alert was received last year, but not forwarded to Wildlife Crime Bureaus in Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata. Mumbai, incidentally, is the biggest import point of caviar, said customs officials.

“As soon as we received the alert from the Centre, we forwarded it to customs to find if such imports were happening. The department got back to us this week saying they were not stopping or verifying such imports as they had no instructions to do so,” said Mita Banerjee, deputy director, Wildlife Crime Bureau, western region.

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