I scan the entire sea front from Kanhangad in Kerala up to the Mumbai coast. I am based in Bhatkal, once a sleepy coastal Karnataka town known as a smugglers’ haven. Now it’s infamous for its terror connections and the Customs, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, IB and the police forces of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Gujarat ask me questions about ships or boats landing arms and ammunition.
I really miss the 1980s and 1990s when gold, silver, clothes, electronic goods and consumer durables used to come in. I earned around Rs 20,000 per year in reward money, quite a tidy sum those days. But in the mid-1990s, with liberalisation, customs duties were relaxed and those returning from abroad could bring in these items through airports.
I turned an informant after my uncle was killed for tipping off a rival gang. He was part of a smuggling ring and used to handle landings in Bhatkal. In those days, the illegal trade was very organised. Consignments would come in cargo ships, be transferred off the territorial waters to mechanised fishing boats and then landed in safe jetties. The landing agents were local lords. Police and Customs officers would take bribes from smuggling gangs to raid rivals. When the Ministry of Economic Affairs got wind of their involvement, a policy to reward informers was started.
Now, smuggling activity has shifted from fishing piers to big ports handling containers, rendering landing agents jobless. Smugglers from Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai also use couriers who are paid to carry bags through international airports. Such information is hard to come by.
In 1992-93, in what came to be known as the Gangolli gold smuggling case, I was cheated of my reward, forcing me to lodge a complaint against Customs officials. Senior officers saw my point and ordered that I be paid my dues. But my reward still came to less than 20 per cent of what I was due. I approached the Karnataka High Court, which ruled in my favour. I had to run around for five years to get it. But I continued to tip off the department like a good soldier. They made 33 huge seizures. Even outgoing consignments of ketamine, mandrax, ecstasy, heroin, red sanders, a protected wood species grown in AP, have been caught thanks to me.
(Code-named ‘Shankar’, he plans to retire now.)
As told to Anil B. Lulla