mid-day exclusive: Who is stealing gold from Customs?

New Delhi: Continued pilferage of gold worth crores from the Customs warehouse is causing alarm, in some cases the yellow metal replaced with brass stock. Two Customs officials have been picked up for questioning, along with ground staff of some international and domestic air carriers, it is reliably learnt.

The Ministry of Finance (MoF) and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has take serious note of this theft that continues unabated from the Customs vaults at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, which ranks second to Mumbai in gold smuggling. No estimates have been made as to how much gold his been pilfered from the Customs warehouse. There is a little over 2000 kilos of gold lying in the Customs warehouse in Delhi and Mumbai.

“It’s a big, continuing heist and cannot be ignored. Gold worth crores have disappeared from the vaults. In just one case that was reported in September this year, 11 kilos of gold were found missing. But there are many such cases which need to be investigated and audited,” a top official of MoF told mid-day.

The official, who spoke on conditions of anonymity, said a thorough check of the inventory will be done soon. “In some cases, gold was pilfered, in some cases replaced with brass biscuits. This is the handiwork of insiders,” the official said, adding a number of Customs officials have already been questioned in the cases that came to light. Besides, a number of ground handling staff and airlines crew have also been questioned for their alleged involvement in gold smuggling.

“Last year, such thefts continued throughout, in January, April and December. And again, such cases are being reported this year. The chances of senior Customs officials being involved in the case cannot be ruled out,” the official said.

Representational pic

Additional Commissioner of Customs, Vinayak Azad said bulk of the cases pertained to 2014 when he was not in charge. He further said investigations were on to get to the bottom of the case. “The Customs officials were the ones who filed the FIR with the Delhi Police to take the case to a logical conclusion. The probe is on,” said Azad.

“The customs officials are maintaining a strict vigil. They are keeping a close watch on flights coming from Middle East and other sectors to check smuggling,” added Azad.

In the case reported this September, gold weighing about 11 kilos - worth Rs 3 crore - had disappeared from the Customs warehouse. The incident came to light when the packets containing the yellow metal, covered and sealed at the instance of courts, were opened before a departmental committee as part of an inventory assessment.

“What is worrying is similar thefts - gold replaced with brass - happened last year and such thefts continue to happen now in the Customs warehouses. It means the modus operandi of those involved is the same. We are talking of big cash here, the final assessment is yet to be done,” the MoF official further said. However, Customs officials in Mumbai checked any possible pilferage or theft from their vaults by doing a half yearly audit.

“Gold smuggling is a menace at the Mumbai airport but we have checked thefts from our warehouse only because of these audits. It has worked wonders because the entire stock is being checked and valued by our staff that is constantly changed by rotation,” said Milind Lanjewar, Additional Commissioner of Customs at the Mumbai Airport.

But Lanjewar admitted that involvement of ground staff at the airport and of those working with various airline companies in smuggling gold was on a high across India. “This is a very dangerous trend,” said Lanjewar.

An incident which got reported in this September involved Mumbai airport staff. This, claimed sources in Mumbai, was the 20th such case where insiders were involved in gold smuggling in last one and half years. In this case, gold worth Rs 28 lakhs was recovered from one Deepak Indramani Pandey (holding Indian passport No. J1687916), a Jet Airways crew member.

Pandey had abandoned the gold on a sofa outside the room of a senior Customs officer while being asked to come inside for personal search by officer of the AIU. The gold was discovered later and the CCTV footage revealed the crew members had dropped the gold biscuits on the sofa from his trousers. The MoF official said the ministry and PMO have got alarmed only because besides Mumbai, cases of cases of gold smuggling have shot up at Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA).

Last year, almost 600 kilos of gold were confiscated at the Delhi airport from smugglers adopting different modus operandi including use of newly wed couples and airport staff as carriers to avoid suspicion. In 2015, the figure is likely to cross 2014’s figures, the official said. In one such, a couple from Gujarat was arrested at the IGIA with 1.5 kg of smuggled gold jewellery on return for flight tickets for a country where the yellow metal is sold cheap.

A total of 4480 kilos of smuggled gold was confiscated at the airports in India in 2014-15, valued at a whopping Rs.1,120 crore, Minister of State for Commerce, Nirmala Sitharaman, told the Lok Sabha this year. The minister informed the house that there were 3412 incidents of gold seizures at airports across the country. Yet, the amount is a fraction of 175 tonnes, which the World Gold Council estimates was smuggled into India in 2014-15.

Bullion experts claim gold smuggling increased after New Delhi hiked duties - from 4 to a record 10 percent - two years back and the Federal Bank’s 80:20 export-import norm remained in force till November 2014. As a result, imports dwindled and the price difference between Indian gold prices and those in duty-free havens such as Dubai led to increased smuggling.

In India, the BJP-led NDA government announced a monetisation scheme in the 2015 Budget to unlock the value of a part of 22,000 tonnes of gold (US$1trillion) in private hands.

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