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World's biggest lockdown chokes Indian gold smuggling routes

The coronavirus pandemic has crushed the inflow of gold smuggled into the world's second-biggest consumer.

[MUMBAI] The coronavirus pandemic has crushed the inflow of gold smuggled into the world's second-biggest consumer.

Illegal shipments of gold to India are estimated to have slowed to a trickle of about 2 tonnes a month, and may total about 25 tonnes this year, according to N Anantha Padmanaban, the chairman of the All India Gem and Jewellery Domestic Council. That compares with an estimate of as much as 120 tonnes last year, or about 17 per cent of the nation's annual demand, according to the World Gold Council.

Illegal shipments have been hit by one of the world's strictest lockdowns, which was announced in March and halted international flights among other measures. It also resulted in the economy contracting by almost a quarter in the three months through June, slamming overall demand for gold. While restrictions are slowly easing, the country is yet to fully open up its borders as it's rapidly becoming the global epicenter for virus infections, lagging behind only the US.

"There were no flights in the last six months and so there has been a negligible amount of smuggling," Mr Padmanaban said. "Whatever is being smuggled is coming from land borders with Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and not much from airports." That's pushed the monthly average of smuggled gold caught at Indian airports to a six-year low of 20.6 kilograms in the year started April, according to Bloomberg calculations based on finance ministry data.

Smugglers of gold have benefited from record high prices and a 12.5 per cent import tax that India imposes on shipments of the metal and additional local taxes, making illegal purchases cheaper. Jewellers have been seeking a cut of at least 50 per cent in the import tax to reduce the inflows and legalise the imports.

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That will be key for India as once flights resume in full swing, smuggling may rise again. Removal of the import duty on gold by Sri Lanka this month may also increase smuggling into India, Mr Padmanaban said.

"A 45-minute boat ride from Sri Lanka can get you to India's southern tip," Mr Padmanaban said. "They all switch their operations very quickly."


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