Gangs are just mad about saffron

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.



Will U.S. troops march past posters of Stalin?

For the first time, U.S. and British troops will participate in Moscow's Victory Day celebrations, marking the 65th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. But if Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has his way, they may see an old familiar face around town when they get there: 

Posters of Josef Stalin may be put up in Moscow for the first time in decades as part of the May 9 observance of Victory Day - the annual celebration of the defeat of Nazi Germany

The World War II victory came at appalling cost to the Soviet Union - at least 27 million of its citizens are estimated to have died. The toll feeds Russia's self-image as a nation of exceptional valor and any criticism of its wartime role sets of resentment. Stalin's case is especially touchy: should Russians honor him for leading the country's glorious sacrifice, or denounce him for his decades of brutal rule included sending tens of millions into labor camps?

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov believes Stalin should get his due as the Soviet commander-in-chief. "How did people go into the war? ... They went to war with the cry 'For the homeland! For Stalin!'" Luzhkov said on state TV news channel Vesti on Sunday.

Planners say the posters will only be at spots where veterans will gather, not on the parade ground where the international troops will March. It should also be noted that any parade on Red Square will necessarily March past the well-preserved remains of Vladimir Lenin, but this does seem like an unnecessary provocation.

Putin and Medvedev haven't weighed in, but to his credit, State Duma Chariman Boris Gryzlov has denounced the plan to honor the leader who was "guilty in the deaths of millions of people," so it's quite possible that Luzhkov will back down.