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How smugglers sneaked in gold worth Rs 1,300 cr

July 20, 2019 06:38 AM


How smugglers sneaked in gold worth Rs 1,300 cr
4,000 kg gold smuggled through city airport in 6 yrs; unrestricted access to airline staffer made it easy to take out gold without being detected; six accused arrested, four are on the run

The Customs Department this week busted what is estimated to be the biggest single gold smuggling racket in Gujarat. About 4,000 kg of gold worth Rs 1,300 crore is reckoned to have been smuggled through Ahmedabad airport in the past six years. Customs officials say this is only the tip of the iceberg and further probe may lead to the rise in the gold booty.

The rampant smuggling of gold came to light after Jignesh Savaliya, an airline employee at Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport (SVPIA) was arrested along with Lokesh, a carrier, a month-andhalf ago. Savaliya was nabbed by the Air Intelligence Unit (AIU) of the Customs while attempting to smuggle 24.5 kg of 24 carat pure gold worth Rs 8.2 crore through the airport. Lokesh, who flew in on a Fly Dubai flight from the UAE on June 4, had handed over the 22 bars of gold weighing 1 kg each and 25 biscuits of 100 grams each to Savaliya. Their questioning led to unfolding of biggest gold smuggling racket in state. Customs officials have found Savaliya to be the most important link in the chain. His unrestricted access to the different areas at the airport allowed him to carry out the operation under the very nose of multiple security agencies, including the Customs, CISF, AIU, Bureau of Civil Aviation Security who guard the entry points.

Sources said that Savaliya had access in cargo as well as passenger areas – that is not even provided to Customs officials.

How they operated

Once a message was received that a carrier was onboard a particular flight, Savaliya would go on standby on the passenger side of the international terminal, sources said. Once the carrier got out of the aircraft, the exchange would take place immediately and the gold would change hands on the aerobridge itself.

Once the exchange was completed, the carrier, acting like any other international passenger, would declare nothing at the Customs desk and exit the airport.

Meanwhile, Savaliya would exit the aerobridge from its external staircase and go through the cargo bay doors, where he also had access. Investigators are trying to figure out how this happened.

Savaliya would evade Customs and would easily pass on the illicit gold to Vijay Raval, who waited outside the airport and transport it to Rutugna Trivedi, the mastermind. Trivedi would then sell it to jewellers in the local Indian market, thus legitimising the booty.

Who are involved in the racket

Special Public Prosecutor Sudhir K Gupta said, “Six of the 10 accused who were arrested by the Customs have been sent to judicial custody. Financiers Jitendra Rokad and Mehul Bhimani, transporter Vijesh aka Vijay Raval, carriers Divya Bhundiya and Lokesh and airline staffer Jignesh Savaliya were sent to judicial custody on July 16 for 14 days.”

However, mastermind Rutugna Trivedi, his wife Hina who sent the gold from Dubai, accountant Nita Parmar and carrier Bhargav Tanti are absconding. More names are likely to crop as probe proceeds, said officials.

With teams sent out to look out for the accused, Customs is working with national agencies to use diplomatic channels in an attempt to get Hina Trivedi deported from the United Arab Emirates.

While names of only three carriers have been revealed, there are more than seven in all who ferried the 4,000 kg of gold to India from 2013 to 2019, sources said. Divya Bhundia is accused of having ferried 1,285 kg of gold worth Rs 420 crore in 73 trips from Dubai, Customs officials are still trying to figure out how much gold each of the other six carriers ferried from the UAE.

Intelligence failure

Along with investigation into this smuggling case, two more parallel investigations are underway whose outcomes will establish how the smuggling operation continued for six years.

A senior IRS official said, “It is highly unusual for an airline employee, a ground staff member, to be given access to passenger areas as well as cargo areas. The two should not be mixed and still, this was not the case here, which is why they could evade Customs.”

On the other hand, an internal evaluation of security lapses and intelligence failures is underway across different forces to find out how no intelligence about this racket went undetected for six years. A senior official said, “We are trying to learn from this failure and assess why no intelligence was developed earlier in this matter.”

Carriers paid peanuts

While officials were reluctant to divulge the personal details of the accused since they have not yet been convicted, it has come to light that a major chunk of profits was taken by mastermind Rutugna Trivedi and his wife, and the financers.

The carriers were paid very less, approximately the value of 400-500 grams of gold, apart from having their ticket fare reimbursed. Officials however did say that most carriers had joined the smuggling ring owing to financial troubles.

Savaliya himself got a better amount, which has not been disclosed in the interest of the investigation.

Gold smuggling in India

According to the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence’s report ‘Smuggling in India 2017-18’, the Indian Customs had seized 3,223 kg of gold valued at Rs 974 crore in 2017-18, a rise of over 100 per cent compared to 2016-17 when 1,422 kg gold worth Rs 472 crore had been seized.

Customs officials in Gujarat said that 65 kg gold had been seized in 139 cases from the state’s only international airport at Ahmedabad in 2018-19. Comparatively, that’s a rise of 250% over 2017-18, when only 20 kg had been seized in 38 cases. The airport at Surat became only the second international airport in the state on June 8, 2019, after approval from the Customs department

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