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Baubles to bars: India gold culture defies curbs

Baubles to bars: India gold culture defies curbs

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Mumbai:

India's steep new tax on gold imports doesn't deter Mousumi Rao as she holds up a glittering $5,000 filigree necklace that could adorn her daughter on her wedding day. Ms Rao's daughter isn't getting married next month or even next year. The 12-year-old is at least several years away from her wedding.

Since tradition demands a bride practically drip with gold jewelry, it's never too early for an Indian family to start preparing, particularly with the high cost of gold these days.

"I'm collecting things for her now so when she grows older and marries, I should have enough gold for her," said Ms Rao. "It is very auspicious for us, one of the most auspicious things, to give gold to your daughter."

Gold has been deeply entwined in Indian culture for thousands of years. Nowadays, India is by far the world's biggest buyer of gold and those imports are an increasing drain on an economy that is growing too slowly to reduce widespread poverty.

Last year Indians imported 864 tons of gold, about one fifth of world sales. The unquenchable appetite for gold coins, bars and jewelry has swelled India's trade deficit and weakened its currency, making crucial imports such as fuel more expensive.

"Every Indian wants gold. Now is the wedding season, and I'm seeing an increase in demand no matter about the tax," said jeweler Arun Kaigaonkar. "Prices have been rising for years, and still people buy." He said not only jewelry, but gold bars and coins remain in high demand because in many rural areas banking is less available. "In the countryside, people save their money only in gold."

"The culture of gold is so strong in India. It's difficult to contain this demand by just tweaking import duties," said Samiran Chakraborty, an economist with Standard Chartered Bank in Mumbai.

In early 2011, an ounce of gold cost about $1,375 on the world market, or nearly Rs 62,000 inside India at the exchange rate at the time. It now costs over $1,600 an ounce but the drop in the rupee against the dollar means the cost in India has risen by an even greater extent, to about Rs 90,000.

The rising price does reduce demand but each festival and wedding season brings sales back up again. Industry experts say there are signs that higher import taxes have encouraged smuggling, which hasn't been a problem since India lifted strict gold controls more than 20 years ago.

Few expect a return to those draconian measures. Potentially more effective is a new scheme to get the vast amounts of gold already in India back into circulation. "India is not only the world's biggest importer of gold, it is also the biggest hoarder of gold," said Albert Cheng, managing director of the World Gold Council (WGC), which estimates there are some 18,000 tons of gold locked up in bank vaults and family homes around the country.

Standard Chartered's Mr Chakraborty said such "non-productive" gold in India is worth some $1 trillion, about half of India's gross domestic product (GDP).

"Gold is considered pure in our culture, and giving it is a virtue. Certain amount of gold must be bought," said 26-year-old Rohini, a Mumbai physiotherapist as she browsed in a jewelry shop. Her mother, Jaishri, agreed. "Of course, nobody can afford as much as we used to. Once upon a time, we used to buy gold by the kilo," she said. "But the price is so high now, we just buy what we can for the necessary things."

Story first published on: February 19, 2013 18:51 (IST)

Tags: Mousumi Rao, Arun Kaigaonkar, Albert Chang, Mumbai, World Gold Council, Standard Chartered Bank, Gold, WGC

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