Gold rush: Ground staff join transit passengers in gaming the system

According to sources, the agency has sought the support of Airports Authority of India and all airlines to help curb this issue.
Image used for representational purpose.
Image used for representational purpose.

CHENNAI: Gold smuggling rackets involving a nexus between passengers transiting through Chennai, especially those who are Singapore or Colombo-bound, and the city airport’s staff have been identified by Customs officials as a ‘menace impacting the economic security of India.’

According to sources, the agency has sought the support of Airports Authority of India and all airlines to help curb this issue.

On Sunday, the Chennai airport Customs recovered 12.6 kg gold worth Rs 8.05 crore that was being smuggled through such nexus. Mohammed Barkatullah, a customer service officer for Indigo Airlines, and Abdulla Jomu Jaljahan, a Sri Lankan national travelling from Singapore to Dubai via Chennai, were arrested in this connection.

Customs investigation has said that gold worth Rs 25 crore was seized in 15 recent smuggling cases involving transit passengers to and from Singapore and Colombo. In several cases, passengers might have successfully smuggled out the gold, the probe added.

Transit passengers cannot be searched by Customs as they have legally not entered India. This helps them get free movement in the transit and departure area of the airport. Exploiting this legality, smugglers schedule their flights to get around 15-24 hours of transit time in Chennai airport, even if earlier connecting flights are available. They use this time to transfer their foreign gold through select staff at the airport who have access to the transit area. The transfer usually happens inside toilets, where there are no CCTV cameras, sources said.

During investigation, it was found that airport staff are easily lured as their monthly salaries are as low as Rs 20,000 and smugglers promise them several times that amount in just a week, sources added. There are at least 1,000 staff from different agencies like ground handling, airlines, food services, etc who work in the airport and it is extremely difficult for Customs to keep a tab on everyone. Smugglers also promise legal help to staff if they are apprehended, sources added.

To curb the menace, Customs has suggested that transit passengers from Singapore and Colombo be kept in a separate lounge which has single entry and exit so that their movement is restricted. The agency has also recommended that airlines book their connecting flights with as little a layover as possible. They have suggested that transit option be done away with for Colombo flights.

Customs officials have also found that airport staff helping smugglers are able to bring out the gold through the departure area as they are not properly checked by Central Industrial Security Force. In Sunday’s case, it was found that Barkatullah had concealed the gold paste in his shoes and CISF failed to scan that part of the body.

Another issue helping smuggling nexus is that airport staff can freely move across different sections, including the domestic terminal where there is no surveillance by Customs, sources said.

Customs officials have suggested that there should be a single entry and exit for all staff and it should be monitored closely by CCTV cameras and CISF.

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