Black money list: Disclosing 3 names from 700 means trail has gone cold

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October 27, 2014

Did we wait so many years to learn that one Chimanlal Lodhiya, a Pradip Burman and a Radha Timblo are being prosecuted for allegedly holding illegal accounts abroad?

October 27, 2014

Did we wait so many years to learn that one Chimanlal Lodhiya, a Pradip Burman and a Radha Timblo are being prosecuted for allegedly holding illegal accounts abroad?

The problem with politicizing the unearthing of black money and reducing it to a game of name-and-shame is that you end up with zilch: after shouting about it for five years, we have probably alerted the big crooks to move their money elsewhere. Those who have not done so are probably dead or dumb. Or both.

In fact, an Economic Times report last week suggested that the Swiss banks were themselves are asking some of their clients to get a move on, as they are embarrassed to be handling their dodgy accounts. This may be just the dumb money that still hasn't got the message.

Let's be clear. We are not going to get more than a few shekels from the money allegedly stashed abroad no matter what we do. The chances are most of the funny money is probably back in India right now, especially since the Indian economy is prepped up to fare better and interest rates abroad are still down in the dumps. Only a fool would keep his money abroad to earn 1 percent interest when the Indian markets are booming and interest rates are still high.

In 2006, according to the Swiss National Bank, Indian national money with Swiss banks was around Rs 41,400 crore. Then the din about foreign accounts started in India, and by 2008 the money started vanishing. In that year, the amount was whittled down to Rs 15,400 crore. In 2013, the figure was down further to Rs 14,000 crore. That's just about $2.25 billion. The chances are most of that money is legitimately there.

At $2.25 billion, the Indian money in Swiss banks will probably be less than the value of black money sloshing around in south Mumbai's real estate markets.

The naming-and-shaming routine is thus unlikely to yield much public pleasure for the simple reason that that so much time has elapsed since the account-holders knew their names with the government. The mere fact that these names were with the government means deals have been done to clean up the trail.

The Swiss bank list allegedly containing some 700 names became public knowledge in 2008 when a former HSBC employee stole the data and gave it to the French government. The French government, in turn, decided to share the details with our own government. Surprise: 2008 was when the Swiss bank amounts of Indians fell drastically. But despite having the list, the Indian government acted cagey and decided that it will chase the account-holders directly for tax dues. There is good reason to suspect that the government was not keen to disclose the names as it would have embarrassed politicians – not just in the UPA, but NDA too – and businessmen close to them. Now we are unlikely to be any wiser.

Around mid-2011, The Economic Times reported that the income-tax department in Mumbai had already "secured 17 voluntary disclosures out of the 700 Indians having secret accounts with HSBC Bank, Switzerland."

The question to ask is this: if the government has already managed to get dues paid through backroom deals with some (or many) of the HSBC account-holders in Swiss banks, why are we surprised that the names are not coming out?

As far as the account-holders are concerned, if some of them have already paid their dues and done deals with the taxman, is it possible to haul them up in the court of public opinion and shame them? They can well claim a breach of trust as they may have admitted technical transgressions and compounded their offences or paid their penalties.

Those who didn't do any deals would have had ample time to move their funds elsewhere – as the Swiss National Bank numbers show – and our disclosing the names now will only lead us to a dead end. No money, no prosecution. The Swiss certainly are not going to confirm the details of dead or closed accounts relating to 2008.

The very fact that only three names have been disclosed six years after the government got them means the trail would have gone cold by now. One can embarrass people by disclosing 700 names, but nothing more will come from it.

In fact, the money has probably arrived in India through several routes. The big rise in gold imports we saw in 2011 and 2012 probably was intended to help store the money that returned home. The unexpectedly large surge in the export of some categories of engineering and copper products in 2010-11 may really have been Indian money returning through the overinvoincing route. The sharp increase in FII inflows during those years may also partly have been Indian money returning to our markets.

Some of it went into real estate, when it was booming till 2012; the rest would have gone into stocks from 2013.


Courtesy: Firstpost