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News is often received and interpreted in a context. So it should not surprise us if new details on passengers flying in and out of India demanded by Customs from airlines is seen as a privacy issue, given how long it’s taking India to enact a law that will regulate the use of personal data. This week, the Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs (CBIC) asked air carriers to submit 19 fields of data on cross-border fliers at least 24 hours before their flights depart. Apart from names, nationality and passport data, which are anyway given in advance to our immigration authorities, the CBIC’s format is reported to include contact details, billing information, on-board seating and much else, all of it aimed at doing “risk analysis" that could help India thwart and prosecute economic offences. Despite this demand for enlarged data, airlines see an upside in the move, as it beats having to meet varied spot requests from law enforcers and investigative agencies, a spanner in the works that the world’s apex aviation lobby had appealed against on their behalf earlier this year. A formal format spells ease of process.

As border control is a major aspect of governance, and terror is still a risk, one cannot argue against state access to lists of flier identities. Yet, oddly, our record of individuals wanted for financial wrongdoing flying off is dismal. This vigil is the job of our immigration bureau, though, not Customs, which must concern itself chiefly with incomers, especially those who seek to sneak stuff into India that’s either barred or liable for import duty. The word for this is ‘smuggling’ and our high-tariff past once made ample space for arrivals from overseas to play the role of smugglers at our airports (often unwittingly). By virtue of its value for weight efficiency, gold has long been the hot choice of wilful smugglers. Tariff reduction with India’s economic reforms had squeezed profits in such risky price arbitrage, but a local premium on the metal kept this glittery game alive. As reported, airport seizures of gold added up to almost 586kg in 2021-22, up from about 400kg the year before. Some six weeks ago, as part of an effort to dissuade imports in general, the Centre raised its basic import duty on gold brought along in their baggage by Indian citizens and arrivals of Indian origin who’d stayed abroad for over six months from 7.5% to 12.5% (plus a 1.25% surcharge), subject to a limit of 1kg per person. Others must cough up a heftier charge of 38.5%. Could an enlarged incentive for gold sneak-ins have gone into the CBIC’s data call-up?

Like various popular assets, gold saw a sharp pandemic uptrend driven by a global gush of stimulus cash, but its price—both globally and locally—has been largely flat ever since central banks began to call off easy-money policies. This year’s outbreaks of retail inflation and war-led uncertainty have not acted as gold price escalators, which suggests a slight drop-off in public perceptions of its worth as a safety hedge against those value wreckers. Crypto options might also have stolen some of its glitter. In any case, the metal’s allure as a store of wealth in perpetuity can hardly be taken for granted. Its holdings are a physical burden and offer no stream of earnings. But nor can we assume would-be smugglers to be savvy investors, or anything else about them for that matter. Smuggling is a tawdry duty-made temptation. It’ll probably go on, with no saying by whom. Artificial Intelligence or not, it’s hard to see how predictive profiling of fliers will help nab them.

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