I am a little surprised by some of the headlines in today’s newspapers which state that the NDA Government has done a U turn on the issue of black money stacked up in Swiss bank accounts. Nothing can be farther from the truth.
Let me begin by saying that the NDA Government WILL NOT withhold any information, including names of account holders who have stashed black money abroad, from the public; but the names will be revealed after following the due process of completing investigations and reaching conclusions about quantum of unaccounted money. After doing so, all the information including the names of account holders will become public when quoted in court proceedings arising from complaints to be filed by the Income Tax Department against tax offenders. Any premature and out of court disclosure of the names of account holders would not only vitiate the investigations but will enable such account holders to get away with their offences. It will also violate India’s Double Taxation Avoidance Agreements (DTAA) with other countries and will choke receipt of all further information from those countries.
The NDA Government took over in the last week of May, 2014. For 3 years, the UPA Government has been refusing to appoint the SIT directed by the Supreme Court. At the first very Cabinet Meeting, Shri Narendra Modi Cabinet decided to appoint the SIT. The SIT has been effectively functioning since then.
On October 15, 2014, a team of officials led by Revenue Secretary and comprising of Chairman, CBDT has signed a Joint Statement with the appropriate authorities in Switzerland with regard to investigation into black money stacked in Swiss banks. The four important aspects of that agreement are:
(i) With regard to the list available with India of account holders in the HSBC, where Indian tax authorities have conducted independent investigations, the Swiss would provide India with details upon our furnishing of adequate evidence in this regard.
(ii) Whenever India has some information/ documentary evidence, the Swiss would confirm the authenticity or otherwise of that evidence. (iii) This would be done in a time bound manner. (iv) Discussion would now start on a bilateral agreement on automatic exchange of information in the banking system. If this bilateral arrangement is arrived at, it will be an important milestone in detection of black money held by Indians in the Swiss banks.
Independent of the above, the Supreme Court of India in the “Black Money Case” had directed the Government of India to furnish the names to the petitioner which have been given by Germany to India. These names were given to the petitioner who made them public. The Germans strongly objected to this as a violation of the Double Tax Avoidance Agreement (DTAA) which was entered between Government of India and Germany on 19th June, 1995. The present NDA Government has unfortunately inherited the legacy of that DTAA. We may have negotiated a better deal. If we scrap the treaty, we get no further information. The covenant to the treaty is that the names of the account holders and information received thereunder will only be disclosed when charges are filed in court. They obviously cannot be utilized for political propaganda or for political mileage.
The choice before the NDA Government is clear; violate the Treaty and get no names in future or abide by the Treaty, collect evidence, file charges in courts and let the names become public so that the account holders can be named and shamed. One act of adventurism of violating the treaty and discussing the name could perhaps jeopardise future cooperation from the reciprocating state.
All that the Government has requested the Supreme Court is to clarify that it has not prohibited the Government of India to enter into Treaties with countries wherein a commitment may be made by the Government to maintain confidentiality of information received as per international standards. If such a commitment to maintain the confidentiality is not given we will not receive any information about Indians hiding their money in other countries including offshore financial centres and tax heavens. Thus the clarification sought from the Supreme Court is only to facilitate collection of information about illegal money stashed abroad.
Nobody has ever suggested that the names should not be made public. They should be made public in accordance with the existing due process of law. If that process is violated, you will never get to know the names in future. The NDA Government stands committed to detect the names, prosecuting the guilty and making them public. We are not going to be pushed into an act of adventurism where we violate the treaties and then plead that we are no longer able to get the cooperation of reciprocating states. Such an approach may actually help the account holders. Adventurism will be short-sighted. A mature approach will take us to the root of the matter.