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This is how Mumbai customs seize items worth hundreds of crores

mid-day spoke to the Air Intelligence Unit of Mumbai Customs, to find out how they consistently manage record-breaking captures of smuggled gold, drugs and other items

If you have noticed in the news that smuggled gold is increasingly being intercepted in the city, it is solely due to the Air Intelligence Unit (AIU) of Mumbai Customs.

Additional Commissioner of Customs Milind Lanjewar (in blue shirt) and Assistant Commissioner of Customs (AIU) Kiran Kumar Karlapu (to his left) with other members of the AIU
Additional Commissioner of Customs Milind Lanjewar (in blue shirt) and Assistant Commissioner of Customs (AIU) Kiran Kumar Karlapu (to his left) with other members of the AIU

The AIU keeps an eye on the swanky Terminal 2 to ensure smugglers aren’t able to sneak contraband into the city. The unit also throws cold water on plans to export illegal items from the city to other countries. In the past year, they have seized smuggled gold, drugs, animal meat, gutka and cigarettes.

mid-day’s September 24 report on the capture of gutka suitcases
mid-day’s September 24 report on the capture of gutka suitcases

Led by Commissioner of Customs APS Suri, Additional Commissioner of Customs Milind Lanjewar and Assistant Commissioner of Customs (AIU) Kiran Kumar Karlapu, the team has intercepted gold worth Rs 190 crore and has had a record-breaking 500 captures till date this year. mid-day had most recently reported on the seizure of 50 suitcases of gutka from Terminal 2.

With the number of cases increasing day-by-day, the team is constantly on its toes to detect new ways in which smugglers try to outsmart the officials. mid-day spoke to Suri and Karlapu to find out about the challenges they face every day.

Q. Tell us about the AIU, the number of people who work in it, your timings, etc.
A. The Air Intelligence Unit has a full-time Assistant Commissioner of Customs and is divided into four batches that work in 12-hour shifts — 8 am to 8 pm and 8 pm to 8 am. A total of 100 officers work in the unit.

Q. How are the responsibilities divided among the units?
A. Each batch has a Superintendent In-charge, who deputes staff members to various locations of the airport, like the arrival hall, departure hall, international transit area, boarding gates, in-line screening level, rummaging of aircraft, and the apron side, to ensure all areas are covered.

Q. Considering your duty is to intercept smuggled gold, drugs and other illegal commodities, what are the challenges you face every day?
A. It is a high-pressure job with alternating day and night shifts; therefore, health and family problems do occur. The new T2 terminal building is a huge area with many exits. Staff members from several service-providing agencies work there. Keeping an eye on all of them is a challenge. After seizure, the final disposal of the gold is a long procedure involving a lot of paperwork with the judicial magistrate.

Q. How do smugglers try to sneak in contraband?
A. Recent trends in smuggling illegal commodities have been to conceal them in electronic items like microwaves, TVs, mobile chargers, extension cords and hot plates, and, of course, concealment on one’s person. There have also been cases where gold has been handed over to housekeeping staff, airlines staff, crew members, or has been left in the toilets, trash bins to be picked up by airport staff later.

Q.Tell us about your canine helpers. How many dogs do you have? How are they trained?
A. The AIU has five sniffer dogs. They are trained with the help of dog handlers for six months at the Border Security Force Academy at Tekkanpur near Gwalior. The dogs are trained to sniff out narcotic substances like amphetamine, methaquolone, ephedrine and others.

Q. The AIU has broken all records with 500 captures this year. How did you manage this feat?
A. This unit works in a professional and systematic manner. Sensitive flights are thoroughly screened and discreet surveillance is continuously kept over all employees of the airport. Very often, passengers are tracked from the boarding gate itself. The officers working here have vast experience in intelligence and information networks. The officers also cultivate informers for this task. Mumbai Customs also has a dedicated Preventive Cadre, manned by Preventive Superintendents and Officers. This is a system unique to Mumbai, and is not found in other international airports like Delhi, Hyderabad or Bangalore. These officers have the experience of working in Intelligence and anti-smuggling since the times of Dawood Ibrahim and Tiger Memon. Their experience is invaluable in tackling gold smuggling in today’s times.

Q. Why have the instances of smuggling cases in Mumbai increased? Is there a new modus operandi the culprits use?
A. The import of gold has been restricted by government policy and import duty has been increased to 10 per cent. The introduction of the RBI’s 80-20 scheme for importing gold has also created a shortage of gold domestically. This scheme binds gold importers to fulfil an export obligation in gold. This has created a supply-demand imbalance in the domestic gold market. Thus, there has been a rise in efforts to smuggle in gold at all airports.

Q. How frequently are drugs and other illegal commodities like cigarettes and gutkas caught?
A. In the month of August, 29 cases relating to cigarettes/gutkas valued at Rs 54,32,600 were registered.

Q. Does the festive season see a rise in number of smuggling cases?
A. Yes, it does. We take extra care during the festive season to nab the smugglers.

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