- By Kayvan FarzanehKayvan Farzaneh is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy.
In September 2009, authorities at an airport in Mangalore arrested two passengers arriving from Dubai with 18 kilograms of contraband hidden in their suitcases. This wouldn’t be shocking if they were smuggling drugs, but they weren’t. Instead, the passengers were carrying nearly 90,000 dollars worth of saffron. This wasn’t an isolated incident either; authorities confiscated 10 kilograms of the stuff at the same airport in July 2009.
Why is saffron (which is the most expensive spice in the world) suddenly being smuggled into India?
Well, it turns out that production in Kashmir, the primary growing area for high-quality Indian saffron, has fallen 85 percent in the last 10 years. Experts are blaming climate change, poor irrigation, and pollution in the region. In response, prices in India have doubled in the past three years. Meanwhile, with Iran and Spain supplying most of the saffron to the world market, global prices have held steady.
Now, the subsequent price gap between India and other countries has led to an opportunity for smugglers to profit; the spice sells for double in India than what it in other markets — up to $5,000 per kilogram. So, learning from their experience with drugs, gangs operating in India, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are using saffron "mules" to carry shipments in their luggage on international flights. Easier for them to carry than other contraband goods (such as drugs), saffron is not easily detectable — or probably even screened for — by customs officials.
Smugglers are also trying to avoid paying hefty export and import taxes, which have only increased potential profit margins. While the Iranian government recently imposed a five percent export tax on bulk shipments of saffron, the Indian government has imposed both an export ban and import taxes to protect the interests of saffron growers in Jammu, Kashmir, and Punjab.
With less risk and such high profit who wouldn’t be mad about saffron? Drugs are just so passé.