MALAPPURAM: Jithin (name changed), an NRK from Kozhikode working as an accountant in Dubai, has not received salary for the past two months because of the COVID crisis. The 34-year-old, desperate to return home, got in touch with a person in Dubai to reserve a seat on a chartered flight to Kerala. After hearing Jithin patiently, the person offered him a free ticket on the condition that he carry some gold to the state. Shocked to hear about gold smuggling, Jithin hung up saying, “I may not go to Kerala immediately.”
Jithin is still in Dubai, unable to find money for a flight ticket. The pandemic and its economic fallout has presented smuggling rackets with a new avenue of finding carriers. They lure desperate people in the Gulf region into gold smuggling, offering them free tickets and incentives. Even Customs officers at the Kozhikode airport admit that rackets have begun using NRKs for their benefit. “All the carriers we caught at the airport recently were struggling NRKs who had lost their jobs after the Covid spread in the Gulf region,” said a senior Customs officer at the Kozhikode airport.
“People with no other option to find tickets may accept the job. We can identify them easily because they are not trained by the rackets. If we tell them sternly ‘we know you are a carrier’ and ask them to take out the gold, they will surrender immediately. Trained carriers will really test our patience.” Since June, more than 5.9 kg of gold has been seized from nine people at Kozhikode airport. Customs officers say the racketeers must have smuggled more than the seized gold to ensure profit. But the Customs are bent on preventing smuggling via the airport.
“Some people think the Covid-19 situation would save them from Customs checks. But neither the crisis situation nor PPE kits will save them. We will screen all passengers and ask them to remove and dispose of PPE kits before Customs checks. But we won’t be able to check Covid-19 patients. After antibody testing, patients will be taken to hospitals directly,” the officer said. At the same time, criticism has been levelled, albeit without evidence, that charity organisations — which chart flights from the Gulf — compel people into gold smuggling.
The Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre (KMCC) said under no circumstance would the organisation ask anyone to indulge in such illegal activities. “But we don’t know if anyone involved in smuggling has taken advantage of the NRKs’ plight. Also, we haven’t received any complaint from NRKs that they were forced to smuggle gold to get flight tickets,” said Ibrahim Ottapalam, a working committee member of KMCC, Muscat.