Despite Covid-19 pandemic, gold smuggling in Kerala continues unabated

Date seeds, bra straps, belt buckles, shoe soles, sausages and gold paste are some of the ingenious methods they have resorted to smuggling gold as its prices skyrocket in the country
“Kerala tops in the country in terms of gold seizure. During the last financial year, 550 kg gold was seized from four airports of the state.”said Sumit Kumar, Customs Commissioner in-charge of Kerala and Lakshadweep region.(REUTERS)
“Kerala tops in the country in terms of gold seizure. During the last financial year, 550 kg gold was seized from four airports of the state.”said Sumit Kumar, Customs Commissioner in-charge of Kerala and Lakshadweep region.(REUTERS)
Published on Jun 23, 2020 08:52 PM IST
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Thiruvananthapuram | By

Pandemic or not, gold smuggling continues unabated in Kerala. At least 5.5 kg of the yellow metal was seized from chartered flights from West Asian countries in the last five days, customs officials said Tuesday.

The customs department has raised the alert level as smuggling syndicates reportedly banked on less stringent frisking, particularly for chartered flights during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Date seeds, bra straps, belt buckles, shoe soles, sausages and gold paste are some of the ingenious methods they have resorted to smuggling gold as its prices skyrocket in the country. For harried officials it is a high-stakes hide-and-seek game. They admit that gold paste is difficult to detect once it is covered with some impurities.

At least 18 lakh people from the state are working in Persian Gulf countries and out of this 4 lakh have registered in a government website which began after lockdown norms were eased. As on Monday 84,000 have returned in ‘Vandhe Bharat’ and chartered flights. At least 149 Vande Bharat and 171 chartered flights are being planned over the next month.

In Kozhikkode airport last week a passenger was detained after he was found wearing a shoe and its sole was made of 500 gms gold and in Kannur a woman passenger was found hiding gold paste mixed with some impurities in her inner wear. Another woman holding her baby was found carrying a water bottle made of gold_ officials say hiding gold in cavities and swallowing gold capsules are also common. They say smugglers are trying to make up for the three-month lockdown when there were virtually no flights in operation.

“Kerala tops in the country in terms of gold seizure. During the last financial year, 550 kg gold was seized from four airports of the state. At least half of this quantity is from Kozhikode international airport. True, we are hit badly due to Covid-19 but we will not lower our guard come what may,” said Sumit Kumar, Customs Commissioner in-charge of Kerala and Lakshadweep region.

Like health officials, customs personnel have been worst affected in the pandemic with at least 40 of them having had to go into quarantine in two months in Kerala.

“We have got information that smuggling rackets eye people who lost jobs and make them carriers in troubled times. They also take risk believing that checking will be minimum for special flights. We have registered eight cases in one week,” said the commissioner. Frisking and surveillance are done keeping Covid protocols in mind, he said adding he has sought high-resolution double scanners to tide over difficulties.

Kerala’s love for gold is well known. It buys at least one-third of the gold imported in the country, according to All Kerala Gold and Silver Merchants Association president Justin Palathara. But 2019 was worst in terms of sale due to high prices and now the pandemic has taken the sheen out of it.

Last year, gold holdings of two major NBFCs, Muthoot and Manappuram alone were 232 tonnes. According to the India Gold Council data, the country imported 831 tonnes of gold in 2019.

“It is a fact that a good quantity of smuggled gold is in the market. Now the import duty is 10 per cent and GST is 3 per cent. With the price of the metal so high, demand is very low. Since gold is considered a safe investment, many are investing. But demand for jewellery is yet to pick up,” said Palathara.

“High demand perks up smuggling. It is highly lucrative. One kg smuggled gold saves at least 5 lakh in duties. Usually, carriers were given 10 per cent and ground handlers get another 10 per cent. Rest is profit,” said a jewellery owner, who did not want to be identified. He also claimed that in Kerala at least 30 per cent of the demand for the yellow metal is met by smuggled gold.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Ramesh Babu is HT’s bureau chief in Kerala, with about three decades of experience in journalism.

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