Northeast emerging gold smuggling transit hub? NIA conducts raids in Assam and Maharashtra
The National Investigation Agency (NIA) on Thursday carried out raids at four locations in Assam’s Guwahati and Maharashtra’s Sangli in connection with a smuggled gold haul worth crores of rupees from the national capital.
The development underscores the seriousness of how the Northeast, which shares the majority portion of its border with four countries, is being increasingly used as a transit hub by Myanmar-based smugglers to pump in Chinese gold into India.
In August this year, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) seized a total of 83.621 kgs of smuggled gold bars worth Rs 42.89 crores at New Delhi Railway station from 8 eight passengers travelling to New Delhi by Dibrugarh-New Delhi Rajdhani Express on fake identity cards.
According to NIA spokesperson, the agency sleuths carried out searches at the premises related to accused persons and their handlers from where they used to give effect to the commission of a crime. "The accused had revealed that they had collected the consignment from Guwahati, and it was meant to be delivered at New Delhi, on the directions of their handlers who are suspected to have sourced the smuggled material from Myanmar, Nepal, and Bhutan."
“During searches, incriminating documents and electronic devices containing details of suspicious transactions as well as of the persons involved in the instant crime, who are also having linkages abroad including Myanmar and Nepal, were seized,” the official added. NIA took over the case on September 19.
According to sources, the gold was concealed in specially tailored cloth vests worn by the eight passengers travelling to the national capital in Rajdhani Express.
"Based on specific information, a team of DRI officials intercepted the passengers, engaged as 'carriers' in the gold smuggling racket, at New Delhi Railway station and made one of the biggest gold recoveries in the recent times," the source added.
The Northeast & China connection
The demand for gold in the country goes up before Diwali every year, much of it coming from South Indian states - Kerala and Tamil Nadu and with China being the world’s largest gold producers followed by Australia, Russia, and the United States, the smuggled gold finds its way to India through the porous borders of Northeast with Myanmar in particular.
Accordingly, to a source in the intelligence agency, the involvement of Myanmar-based smugglers came to light back in 2018 when a joint team of Assam Rifles and DRI arrested two Myanmarese nationals with 7.482 kg gold bars, estimated at Rs 2.45 crore in the international market, while they were on their way to Assam from Mizoram capital Aizawl.
"During interrogation, the duo disclosed that the recovered gold was smuggled in from Myanmar through the Indo-Myanmar border of Zokhawtar in Mizoram and was to be delivered at Guwahati for transport it further up," the source added.
The source said, investigations since then have revealed that a “strong network” of "international smugglers" from Myanmar is using the Northeast to smuggle gold mainly from China. "Two common routes identified are Moreh in Manipur and Champai district in Mizoram. Guwahati, being the gateway of Northeast, has connectivity all across the country and is slowly turning into a hub for smugglers to send the consignment to its destination."
The middlemen use the road, rail, or air routes to reach the markets in Chandni Chowk in Delhi or Barabazar in Kolkata, from where it reaches other parts of the country, the source added.
Another source in the intelligence agency said, that, gold smugglers are also using the Siliguri corridor of West Bengal to smuggle gold from China through Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh.
Gold smuggling - the chain
The gold smuggler racket is an "international racket" having a "strong reach" across multiple countries. From smugglers to the handlers to the carriers, the racket involves a chain of persons having specific responsibility.
In most cases, there is hardly any direct link between two chains to avoid security agencies reach the other chain leading them to the masters.
Gold seizures - an insight into some seizure from Northeast
In October 2020, officials of DRI seized 33 kgs of gold, smuggled into India from Myanmar, worth over Rs 17 crore from a truck at West Bengal''s Siliguri while it was heading to its destination and arrested 4 persons. It also seized 5.98 Kg of gold of foreign origin valued at Rs. 3.13 Crore at Kohima - Dimapur Road in Nagaland in the same month.
In September 2020, DRI officials seized 6.64 Kgs and 3.32 kg of gold of foreign origin valued at Rs. 3.40 Crore and Rs. 1.78 Crores at Guwahati on two consecutive days and 4.98 Kgs of gold of foreign origin valued at Rs. 2.66 Crore at Siliguri.
In August 2020, besides the haul of above 83 kgs of gold at New Delhi Railway station, the sleuths of DRI seized 10.3 Kgs of gold of foreign origin valued at Rs. 5.53 Crore from Imphal-Moreh road and 26.56 Kgs of gold of foreign origin valued at Rs. 14.09 Crore at New Jalpaiguri Railway Station. Similarly, seizures were made every month.
In November 2019, DRI sleuths seized a total of 51.66 kg smuggled gold worth Rs 20.40 crore in three parallel operations in Guwahati,
Siliguri and Varanasi and arrested six person part of the gold smuggling racket.
In Siliguri, acting on specific intelligence inputs the officers of DRI intercepted a vehicle on NH-31 and seized gold weighing 25.77 kg from it while another team intercepted and recovered gold weighing 18.59 kg from a vehicle in Guwahati. Around the same time, in Varanasi, the officers of DRI offloaded two passengers from Delhi-bound North East Express at Pandit Deendayal Upadhyay railway station (Mughal Sarai) and recovered 7.3 kg gold from them.
The preliminary investigation revealed that the seized gold was smuggled into India through the Indo-Myanmar border at Moreh in Manipur.
According to information available, in 2018-19, the DRI and other agencies operating under the Customs Act had seized 4.06 metric tonnes of smuggled gold worth ₹1,264.36 crores and arrested 210 foreign nationals while in FY 19-20 around 2 metric tonnes of the yellow metal has been seized from various parts of the country, a good chunk of them smuggled from Myanmar via Northeast.
In the current financial fiscal, DRI and other agencies have succeeded in making smuggled gold seizures despite several restrictions due to COVID-19.
According to sources, some big names have come to light during the course of the investigation. "However, the agency is tight-lipped as further investigation is underway," the source added.
Who is the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence
The DRI is the forefront agency to curb smuggling activities in India. It is working under the Central Board of Indirect Taxes & Customs, Ministry of Finance, and tasked with detecting and curbing smuggling of contraband, including gold, drug trafficking, and illicit international trade in wildlife and environmentally sensitive items, as well as combating commercial frauds related to international trade and evasion of Customs duty.
The gold smuggling cases are dealt with under the provisions of the Customs Act, 1962.