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Governmental and business circles, inured to periodic breaking of scandals, are seeking to brazen out the unearthing of several hundred offshore accounts of Indians in the British Virgin Islands and other tax havens by an international team of journalists.
Scions of old industrial houses as well as nouveau riche of the era of globalisation are among the 612 Indian nationals who form part of the 2.5 million individuals and entities in over 170 countries, whose names have been revealed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in the first batch of reports yielded by a continuing probe.
Launched in 1997 as a project of the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, the ICIJ is a network of 160 journalists in more than 60 countries engaged in investigation of corruption and cross-border crime. The team is led by Irish-born Gerard Ryle whose award-winning investigative reports on use of orphaned babies for medical experiments and the Firepower fraud in Australia had attracted attention worldwide.
The ICIJ offshore operations probe was made possible by more than 260 gigabytes of data which Ryle received by mail while investigating Firepower which was said to cut petrol consumption and vehicle emissions. It included about 2.5 million files and more than two million emails that helped chart offshore activity over several years.
Responding to queries, Finance Minister P Chidambaram said, “Inquiries have been put in motion in respect of the names that have been exposed.” Such pronouncements were made by government spokesmen after information about secret bank accounts of Indians in Switzerland and Liechtenstein came to light but they did not lead to any action.
Opening offshore accounts is not a crime but their structures are designed to conceal actual ownership and they are often used for illegal purposes like tax evasion. Interestingly, almost all the Indian accounts uncovered by ICIJ were opened during the economic boom of the last decade.
The Indian Express, which published information about the account holders, contacted them to find out what they have to say. Some responses suggest that they have something to hide.
While the ICIJ report named several persons with high political connections in Azerbaijan, Colombia, France and the Philippines, no Indian politician of consequence figures in it. The two MPs in the list, Vijay Mallya and Vivekanand Gaddam, are political lightweights.
Some including Vivekanand Gaddam, Sonu Lalchand Mirchandani of the Onida group, Teja Raju, son of Satyam Computers founder Ramalinga Raju who was jailed in a fraud case, and Gurbachan Singh Dhingra of Berger Paints pleaded ignorance about the accounts in their names.
Some others like Samir Modi of the KK Modi group, Chetan Burman of the Dabur group and Thiagarajan Murugesan of the Paramount group said they had opened offshore accounts to attract investments or boost exports but the plan did not work out. Lankalingam Murugesu, known as ‘papad’ king, said his firm set up an offshore operation for better tax planning but did not use it. “We just thought it is better to pay full taxes,” he told the newspaper.
Mallya’s firm, Ravikant Ruia of the Essar group whose name has come up in the telecom spectrum scam and Maitreya Vinod Doshi of the Premier Ltd said the Indian authorities had been informed about their offshore accounts. Radhikaraje Samarjitsinh Gaekwad of the erstwhile Baroda royal family and Rahul Mamman Mappilai of the MRF group did not respond.
Two years ago the authorities had received from a foreign government the names of 782 Indians with accounts in the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation’s branches outside the country. They refused to reveal the names on privacy grounds. The promised investigations did not lead to any action.
Cobrapost, a website, came out with a sting report alleging the ICICI Bank, the Axis Bank and the HDFC Bank helped in money laundering. The Reserve Bank of India was said to be “seriously looking into the matter” but the Finance Minister gave the banks a virtual clean chit saying, “On the face of it, no real money was transacted and no real money laundering deals took place with any real person.”
When a financial scandal involving private players breaks out, the government goes through the motion of conducting an investigation but it does not result in action against the wrongdoers. The Supreme Court recently remarked that the government’s failure to control black money was indicative of its weakness and softness.
The author is a political analyst of reckoning