With global gold prices soaring over the past year and the government raising import duties on the yellow metal, gold smuggling seems to have become an attractive side hustle for some aviation staff.
Between April 2022 and February 2023, the Department of Revenue Intelligence and customs authorities booked 29 cases involving about 81 kg of seized gold where airline cabin crew members or airport staffers were implicated. By February, 29 such staff had been arrested. This is twice the average number of such cases detected in the previous three years, including the pre-COVID year of 2019-20.
The maximum number of cases involving aviation staffers were detected at Chennai airport, leading to arrests of three of them for seven different cases involving over 9 kg of smuggled gold. Eight cabin crew and ground staff were arrested at Mumbai airport, for facilitating the smuggling of about 32 kg of gold in five cases.
India’s official gold imports fell around 24% to $35 billion in 2022-23, as prices surged and the rupee turned weaker. But this has coincided with a sharp spike in authorities’ detection of gold smuggled into the country, with nearly 4,000 kg of smuggled gold found in the first 11 months of 2022-23, the highest in four years.
Over 63% of this smuggled gold was detected at airports, with the rest detected in places like Darbhanga, Mumbai, Pune, Ludhiana, Surat, Chennai, Madurai and Bengaluru, after it had already arrived in the country, as per data from the Department of Revenue.
“We have noticed an uptick in the involvement of cabin crew and airport staff in some cases of attempted smuggling of gold and action is taken against such persons in accordance with law,” a senior revenue official said, pointing to innovative methods like body concealment, which are being deployed by smugglers to illegally transport metals like gold and silver.
Of the total 29 smuggling cases booked in 2022-23 where airport and airline staffers were found involved, arrests are yet to be made in six cases. That includes a case each at Ahmedabad, New Delhi and Bengaluru airports, and three cases involving over 8 kg of smuggled gold at Calicut airport.
Silver smuggling dips
A literal silver lining amid the spiralling gold smuggling cases is that the white metal’s illicit transit into the country appears to be waning.
The amount of smuggled silver seized in the country dropped sharply from almost 5,200 kg in 2021-22 to a four-year low of under 450 kg in 2022-23, with just 15% of it caught at airports. Only two cases of silver smuggling were detected at airports last year, none of which involved cabin crew or ground staff.