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12 April, 2016

Recycling of hidden money

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Another black money chase has begun with the leaked Panama Papers revealing the names of more than 500 Indians linked to companies registered in tax havens.

It is widely believed that corrupt politicians and bureaucrats hold black money abroad but these documents contain no big names from these categories. The only politician named in them is Anurag Kejriwal, who was President of the Delhi unit of the small Lok Satta Party, founded by former bureaucrat Jayaprakash Narayan, until his expulsion two years ago.

This does not necessarily mean the politicians are a better lot than the public imagine. The Panama Papers came from just one of the many firms facilitating offshore accounts.

The best known names in the papers are those of Bollywood veteran Amitabh Bachchan and his daughter-in-law and former Miss World, Aishwarya Rai, a star in her own right.

Bachchan claimed someone might have misused his name. Aishwarya Rai’s media advisor told the Indian Express, which was involved in the global media investigation of the leaked papers, that the information was false.

The Indian Express said the documents showed that Rai, her father, mother and brother were appointed directors of a firm registered in the British Virgin Islands in 2005. Her status was later changed from director to shareholder. Still later the name was shortened to A. Rai “for reasons of confidentiality”.

Most of the persons are businessmen. The big ones include Samir Gehlot of India Bulls and KP Singh of DLF, both of whom are realtors, and Vinod Adani, elder brother of Gautam Adani, who reportedly looks after the Adanis’s foreign operations. Shishir Kumar Bajoria, a Kolkata industrialist who joined the Bharatiya Janata Party after being associated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) for many years, also figures in the list.

The businessmen whom the Indian Express contacted said they were not involved in any illegal activity. They may well be telling the truth, for the laws of the land permit Indians to own companies and park money abroad in accordance with guidelines issued by the Reserve Bank of India.

Some of the offshore company owners are Non-Resident Indians who are not subject to Indian regulations. Under the RBI’s remittance scheme, drawn up to help service overseas requirements for purposes of education and medical treatment, as it now stands, even a Resident Indian can put in up to $250,000 a year in 100 per cent subsidiaries and joint ventures.

As soon as the Panama Papers came to light, former Supreme Court judge MB Shah, who heads a special investigation team on black money constituted by the government in 2014, asked it to ascertain if the Indians’ offshore activities were in accordance with the RBI guidelines.

If they acted with the RBI’s permission, it was legal, Justice Shah said. Otherwise action could be taken. The process would take time.

According to media reports, Prime Minister Narendra Modi does not want the Shah team to go into this matter as it lacks expertise to deal with the complex modus operandi of offshore operators. He asked a team comprising officials from different agencies to probe the matter and give him a preliminary report within 15 days.

In his 2014 election campaign, Modi had repeatedly lambasted the Manmohan Singh government for not taking steps to bring back the black money hoarded abroad and declared he would bring it all back within 100 days if he became the Prime Minister. The Opposition has been taunting him since the expiry of the deadline.

Not that the Modi government has done nothing. Last year it passed a law to give black money holders an opportunity to come clean, paying taxes. Some 644 persons, mostly IT professionals, doctors and small businessmen, revealed concealed income of Rs 41.64 billion and paid Rs 24.28 billion in tax and penalties. A second tax compliance scheme is planned for this year.

Some estimates put Indians’ illegal foreign holdings at $1 trillion. Few expect the big operators to respond to tax compliance schemes since they seem to be able to send black money abroad and bring it back laundered when needed.

One analyst wrote recently that black money is no longer static. It moves on the click of a mouse to chase better returns.

According to former Central Board of Direct Taxes Chairman R Prasad, scam money sent abroad was coming back through routes such as foreign direct investment, foreign institutional investment and fake exports. The fact that about two-thirds of the foreign investments of the last 15 months came from small countries like Mauritius, Singapore, Cayman Islands and Cyprus appears to bear this out.

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