By K.N. Pandita
After evading taxes on money earned through right or wrong means, many “patriotic” Indians have been stashing their wealth in foreign banks, especially in Switzerland. Feeling that their money would be unearthed and accounted for by IT sleuths at home, these “patriots” chose to take it away and deposit in the safe haven of Swiss banks just because of that country’s status of neutrality and banking rules that debar bank authorities from disclosing information about deposits to the third party.
The issue of Indians depositing their unaccounted income or wealth (commonly called black money) inside and outside the country was actually raked up in the context of Bofors gun scandal.
Government’s denial of the then PM’s involvement in that scandal did not convince the opposition. Ever since that event, conjectures have been made about more of black money being stashed in Swiss banks.
When a couple of mega scandals, in which enormous money was involved, came to light during the second stint of UPA government, the issue of black money in Swiss banks also came to be revived. The opposition benches in the parliament then demanded investigation into such illegal deposits abroad and brought pressure on the government to take up the matter with Swiss authorities.
In March 2011, Indian Finance Ministry commissioned a study on estimation of unaccounted income or wealth both inside and outside the country. It did not complete the study within the given time of 18 months. When the question was raised in the parliament again, the Finance Minister found alibi in some clauses of the RTI Act and declined to say more.
The then Finance Minister P Chidambaram took up the issue with the Swiss government asking that details of Indian clients and their credits in Swiss banks be given to the Government of India. He emphasized that the Government of India believed income tax on the money taken out had not been paid and that was contravention of financial rules of the country. Some exchange of letter between former Finance Minister and his Swiss counterpart took place, particularly pertaining to tax regime and a treaty was also signed between the two. But Swiss authorities refused to divulge any information that the Indian Finance Minister was seeking.
In pursuance of BJP’s election manifesto, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered constitution of a Special Investigation Team (SIT) of eleven members. Actually the President had made it clear in his address to the opening session of the new parliament that the government was determined to remove the scourge of corruption and menace of black money.
The most intriguing aspect of black money stashed in Swiss banks is the assessment of its quantum. Various figures are cited and speculation is rife that in any case it is enormous money. According to one speculation it could be in the range of USD 500 billion to 1,400 billion. Global Financial Integrity estimated USD 462 billion. Swiss National Bank disclosed that Indian money in Swiss Banks rose by 43 per cent which is 2.03 billion Swiss Francs (equal to Rs. 14000 crore) tilll 2013. The SIT constituted by Modi government will also try to establish the exact quantum of Indian money deposited in Swiss Banks.
Another important aspect of the entire episode is to find out in which Swiss Banks maximum money has been deposited and how much. According to one analysis, Swiss National Bank has indicated that “big bank account” for 68.2 per cent or 1.4 billion SF (10,000 crore rupees) of total money belongs to the Indian clients of Swiss Banks. It is said that out of 282 Swiss Banks, two, namely UBS and Credit Suisse and Savings, called “big banks” account for 6.3 million SF of Indian clients. Interestingly these banks do not make mention of Indian clients as the source but use cliché like “trading portfolios”, “financial investment and participating interests” etc.
According to a conservative estimate total Indian money in Swiss Banks is around 1.95 billion SF. This amount is held directly by these banks but in addition, 77.3 million SF are received through “fiduciaries” meaning wealth managers. Yet in another analysis, at the end of 2006, Indian money in Swiss Banks was to the tune of 895 million SF and by the end of 2010 it rose to 6.5 billion SF i.e. during four years of UPA-II government.
On the face of it, we find that the Swiss authorities may not cooperate in divulging the quantum of money stolen from India and deposited in their banks. How much success the Special Investigation Team will achieve in arriving at its terms of reference is a moot point. So far there are no convincing signs that the Swiss government will be forthcoming in the matter and will respect the sentiments of the Indian people.
At the same time, as the grapevine has it, top political leaders, business magnates and corporate houses could be among the clients of Swiss Banks or the banks in other countries of Europe like France or Germany. The more we rake the issue, the more hatred will grow among the Indians against the unpatriotic people who have let down the nation. Looking in retrospect, though the former Finance Minister did take up the issue with the Swiss government, yet the thrust needed to push the matter was not there. Naturally it created doubts in the mind of Indians that their elected government had succumbed to personal aggrandizement and was just not seriously taking up the issue on bilateral and multilateral levels. It should be reminded that scans and corruption had dogged the previous government. This and the black money taken out of the country clandestinely and deposited in foreign banks, particularly the Swiss Banks, were the planks which the opposition exploited against the then ruling party and brought about their disaster.
It is a matter of humiliation that when about 32 per cent of Indians live below poverty line and many of them do not afford two square meals and go empty stomach to bed, such enormous money should have D
earmeans of subsistence.
The entire nation is eager to track the progress of the SIT in this matter. The nation wants that its money should be retrieved from foreign control, invested in mega national projects and the thieves and swindlers who duped the nation be given exemplary punishment so that nobody dares to repeat their perfidy.