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Customs glare on Chinese skin glow

China is getting younger at former communist cousin Calcutta’s expense.

Sandalwood smugglers feeding on the craze for anti-ageing creams that contain the scented tropical hardwood apparently find the city the most convenient gateway to China.

Customs officials say the sandalwood comes by road from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu and is smuggled out in small quantities to Kunming, the lone Chinese city directly linked to Calcutta by air.

Kunming, the hub of the wholesale sandalwood trade, does not have air links with any other Indian city.

A week ago, 1.9kg of sandalwood worth nearly Rs 1.5 lakh was seized in Haldia while being transported to the city. Sleuths from the directorate of revenue intelligence intercepted a lorry from Punjab at Durga Chowk in Haldia and seized 68 pieces of red sandalwood hidden in bagfuls of potato.

Driver Gurdip Singh, 37, and Mohammad Islamuddin, 32, from Manipur were arrested but officials have yet to find out who was supposed to receive the consignment.

“Several people have been intercepted at the airport lately while trying to board China-bound flights with red sandalwood. We suspect the latest consignment was also meant to be delivered to Chinese smugglers,” a DRI official said.

Customs officials were unaware of the reason behind the spurt in smuggling of red sandalwood through the city until 16 Chinese nationals were arrested this month, some at the airport and the rest from guesthouses in Dum Dum. Nearly 400kg of sandalwood was seized from them.

“Sandalwood is used as an adjuvant that boosts the anti-ageing effect of commercial products and packs used in beauty salons. Sandalwood is used in powder, paste or mask form in ayurvedic medicines for its anti-ageing effect. It has a good scent and is smooth. It has anti-inflammatory properties and is also an antioxidant,” dermatologist and t2 columnist Sachin Verma said.

According to Verma, the key factors of skin ageing are wrinkle formation, pigmentation, freckles, thinning and dryness of skin, loss of elasticity and open pores. “Different components work against different factors. Sandalwood works as a skin conditioning agent and it doesn’t normally cause allergies,” he said.

Language was one of the challenges of customs officials trying to extract information from the arrested Chinese nationals about sandalwood smuggling. “They don’t know English. We had to engage interpreters for their interrogation,” an officer said.

The arrested smugglers said sandalwood powder mixed with ivory dust was the primary ingredient of some anti-ageing creams popular in China. “No wonder sandalwood smuggling is so lucrative,” the officer said.

An investment of Rs 2 lakh in a quintal of smuggled red sandalwood gives a return of not less than Rs 12 lakh in China. The risk is in smuggling the sandalwood out of India, where felling sandal trees is banned except those that are dead or drying.

A source in the customs department said all 16 Chinese nationals behind bars for sandalwood smuggling had entered Calcutta as tourists. “Their job was to take small consignments by air to Kunming, which has a wholesale market for sandalwood. We also have information about smugglers carrying sandalwood in registered baggage to Thailand, another large market for anti-ageing creams.”

Sleuths are on the trail of those who operate the sandalwood smuggling network within India. “The smugglers sometimes unload their consignments on the outskirts and shift them to small goods vehicles to escape detection,” the source said.

When China Eastern Airlines linked Kunming to Calcutta in 2007, the last thing it would have wanted to do is unwittingly open up a sandalwood route to riches.

SANDAL SHAME

  • Dec. 1: One Chinese national arrested, 27kg of sandalwood seized
  • Dec. 5: Eleven Chinese arrested, 270kg seized
  • Dec. 7: Four Chinese arrested, 80kg seized
  • Dec 16: Two Indians held, 1.9kg seized