100 kg of gold seized last week was camouflaged as mehndi powder

What do mehndi (henna) and gold have in common, apart from being used during weddings? Apparently, the skin decorating paste is now being used to smuggle bullion consignments into the country.

Earlier this week Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) sleuths seized packets of mehndi mixed with powdered gold at the Chennai airport. In the last five days, the DRI has seized around 100 kg of gold being smuggled in — mainly through the Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai airports — as mehndi powder and in other innovative combinations.

“Smugglers are using newer ways to bring in gold, including concealing it in mobile phones, dry fruits, belt buckles and even briefcases. Some have even brought in gold spoons by coating them with stainless steel to hide the yellow metal,” revealed a senior DRI official.

Finance Minister P. Chidambaram on Monday said around three tonnes of gold was estimated to be smuggled in every month. The DRI has made 73 seizures involving an import value (inclusive of duty) of ₹125.71 crore. However, this is said to be only a fraction of the actual quantum of gold smuggled in.

In Pune, officials found gold inside dates, with the seeds replaced by bullion. Likewise, the buckle in the belt of one enterprising smuggler was discovered to be gold with a metallic colour over it.

In Ahmedabad, one person walked in and declared he was carrying gold ore. It turned out to be less than the truth. What was ‘ore’ was in reality a pure gold bar melted with silver and then mixed with soil, cement and various colours. The final product, indeed, had a natural ‘gold ore’ look.

The ‘metallic look’ has also been found in the outer bands of briefcases. The original metal bands had been replaced with gold and then given a metallic touch.

The DRI official admitted that it is impossible to detect such smuggling without tip-offs. “We have relied on this and occasionally also on the way passengers walk in. You need to be alert,” he said.

Since curbs were imposed on gold imports last year, there has been an increase in smuggling. But unlike in the past, when they came in by sea, much of the illicit gold is today entering via airports.

Besides, smugglers are bringing in gold by rail or road from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan.

Until recently, these countries did not impose any curbs on imports. Following meetings between DRI officials and their neighbouring counterparts, Pakistan announced a 30-day ban on gold imports in January; Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Bhutan raised their import duties to 7.5, 37.5 and 13 per cent, respectively.

(This article was published on January 31, 2014)
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