Gold Smuggling Exposes Lax Security

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The recent seizure of a large cache of gold smuggled out of the Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) customs office exposed a troubling nexus between smugglers and officials, revealing lax security at Nepal's primary airport, where thousands of travellers enter and exit the country every day. The growing occurrence of gold smuggling and the finding of substantial gold caches within the airport's facilities are reminiscent of the infamous comment made by convicted serial murderer Charles Sobhraj, who reportedly said he could smuggle even an elephant out of TIA. This claim challenges the airport’s lax security system and negligence of concerned authorities and security personnel. 

Currently, the airport's surveillance equipment, including the closed-circuit TV camera system, is in the hands of a commercial corporation that has won the contract to manage the arrival and departure lounges for thirty years. The owner of this firm has also been suspected for his potential participation in gold smuggling via TIA. Gold smugglers frequently use TIA as a safe haven. According to sources, over 800 kilogrammes of gold has been confiscated by security officers, the customs office, and the revenue department during past nine years.

Ingenious methods

Smugglers, who often devise ingenious methods to avoid detection by officials and sneak gold into Nepal, have recently employed motorbike brake shoes to hide massive stockpiles of smuggled gold, while a few days earlier they used e-cigarettes to slip the gold out of the airport. Meanwhile, other people carry varied amounts of gold in cosmetic item containers, and some hide them in their private areas, inner clothing and under garments. Surprisingly, despite a large rise in gold smuggling, experts in gold business say, not all of the smuggled gold makes its way into the Nepali market due to lesser demand. 

Instead, smugglers transport it to India through the porous Nepal-India border, where the gold, originally obtained at lower costs in Gulf countries or Hong Kong, is sold at higher prices in India, the world's largest gold market, where demand spikes during festive seasons. According to reports, traffickers may get roughly Rs. 140 million from 100 kilogrammes of illegal gold. As per investigations, a well-organised syndicate of gold smugglers has collaborated with influential authorities to get enormous quantities of gold into the nation while dodging customs fees and tariffs. Individuals are now permitted to transport just 50 grammes of gold, while those wanting higher amounts must go through formal financial channels.

The pervasive smuggling of gold for which some Chinese, Indian and a few Nepali citizens have colluded, has generated concerns about probable collaboration of smugglers with officers in duty to circumvent airport security and customs detection measures. Many feel that large-scale gold smuggling would not have been feasible without a link between the smugglers and higher-ranking persons. Unfortunately, this collusion may prevent police from apprehending the main culprits in these smuggling schemes.

Another disturbing element of these smuggling syndicates is that they frequently establish their firms under the names of innocent and poor persons, making it harder for authorities to apprehend the chief perpetrators. In a recent example of gold smuggling, the firm that imported motorcycle brake shoes from China, in which a substantial amount of gold was hidden, was registered in the name of a poor 21-year-old daily wage labourer. In Nepal, persons and real firm operators involved in smuggling or financial crimes frequently establish their business or firms in the names of impoverished people such as rural farmers and daily wage labourers in order to avoid imprisonment even after their syndicates are busted.

Needless to say, smuggling of precious items affects the government's reputation and governance norms, indicating flaws and inefficiencies in the regulatory mechanism. This can harm the country's image in the eyes of foreign investors and international institutions.  If large amount of gold is smuggled, it impacts country’s economy as government loses important revenues, and, in the long run accumulated gold and valuables boosts up informal sectors. It is, however, gratifying to note that the incumbent Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister has committed to investigating the recent smuggling of a large amount of gold, which has seriously damaged security levels at the country's busiest international airport. 

Following the inauguration of a new chief at the airport customs office, gold was confiscated outside the office after smugglers were successful in taking their products out of the office. After the confiscation, numerous customs officers, customs agents, and airport officials were detained. Gold smuggling in Nepal, on the other hand, is not a new occurrence. Individuals associated to high-ranking authorities, especially Panchayat leaders, were apparently involved in gold smuggling at TIA even during the Panchayat time. Following the restoration of democracy in 1990, gold smuggling increased in tandem with unstable politics and governments, with leaders from several parties involved in these crimes. During those years, the then Home Ministers were suspected of engaging in such unsavoury practises.

Compromised security system

The pervasive smuggling of gold and other things, such as prohibited drugs, highlight the compromised security system at Nepal's largest international airport, underlining the necessity for security measures that meet international standards. A prominent example is the 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines aircraft from TIA to New Delhi, which raised worries about the airport's security and then encouraged India in piling pressure on the then Nepali government for allowing it to handle the airport's security. Following much protest in Nepal, such an attempt from India fizzled out.

The gold smuggling episode at the country's principal international airport has shocked the nation, demonstrating how our authorities have failed to maintain adequate security measures. It has also exposed deep-rooted corruption within the customs office and other illicit activities in and around the airport. This situation necessitates urgent action to ensure that our nation is secure and its reputation is not tarnished by such adverse events. All those responsible for such flagrant violations of the law must be taken to task and stern measures are implemented to curb smuggling and other illegal activities.

(Upadhyay is a former managing editor of this daily.)

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