India has lost nearly a half-trillion dollars in illegal financial flows out of the country, says a new study by Global Financial Integrity.

India is losing nearly Rs.240 crore every 24 hours, on average, in illegal financial flows out of the country. The nation lost $213 billion (roughly Rs.9.7 lakh crore) in illegal capital flight between 1948 and 2008. However, over $125 billion (Rs.5.7 lakh crore) of that was lost in just this decade between 2000-2008, according to a study by Global Financial Integrity (GFI). These “illicit financial flows,” says GFI, “were generally the product of corruption, bribery and kickbacks, criminal activities and efforts to shelter wealth from a country's tax authorities.” GFI is a programme of the Center for International Policy, Washington D.C. It is a non-profit research and advocacy body that “promotes national and multilateral policies, safeguards, and agreements aimed at curtailing the cross-border flow of illegal money.”

In just five years from 2004-08 alone, the country lost roughly Rs.4.3 lakh crore to such outflows. That is — nearly two and a half times the value of the 2G telecom scam now exercising Parliament and the media. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) pegs the 2G scam at almost Rs.1.8 lakh crore.

Accounting for the rate of return on those illegal outflows, the present value of that $ 213 billion reaches $ 462 billion (Rs.21 lakh crore) says GFI. Astonishingly, over $96 billion of that amount left the country between 2004 and 2008. As the report's author, Dev Kar, told TheHindu: “India is losing capital at an average rate of $19.3 billion per annum ... India can ill afford to ignore such a loss of capital.”

As the report puts it: “Had India managed to avoid this staggering loss of capital, the country could have paid off its outstanding external debt of $230.6 billion (as of end-2008) and have another half left over for poverty alleviation and economic development.”

At the 2004-08 pace (if it has not gone up), the economy is haemorrhaging at a rate of nearly Rs.240 crore every day on average. And even the total $462 billion, says GFI Director Raymond W. Baker in a letter prefacing the report, is “a conservative estimate. It does not include smuggling, certain forms of trade mispricing and gaps in available statistics.” Factor these in, and “it is entirely reasonable to estimate that more than a half-trillion dollars have drained from India since independence.”

The study

The GFI study is titled “The Drivers and Dynamics of Illicit Financial Flows from India: 1948-2008.” Authored by Dr. Kar, formerly a senior economist at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and now Lead Economist at the GFI, it defines ‘illicit flows' as “comprised of funds that are illegally earned, transferred, or utilised — if laws were broken in the origin, movement, or use of the funds then they are illicit.” Such fund transfers are not recorded in the country of origin for they typically violate that nation's laws and banking regulations.

So massive are these illegal outflows, says the study, that the “total capital flight represents approximately 16.6 per cent of India's GDP as of year-end 2008.” Its estimate falls far short of the $1.4 trillion figure cited in the India media prior to the 2009 general elections. But, says the report, “the figure still represents a staggering loss of capital.” Illegal flight of capital, it says, “worsens income distribution, reduces the effectiveness of external aid, and hampers economic development.”

That does seem an obvious outcome in a country where according to the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS), 836 million human beings live spending Rs.20 a day or less.

The illegal outflows also account for most of India's parallel economy. “The total value of (such) illicit assets held abroad represents about 72 per cent of the size of India's underground economy which has been estimated at 50 per cent of India's GDP (or about $640 billion at end-2008) by several researchers. This implies that only about 28 per cent of illicit assets of India's underground economy are held domestically.” It also strengthens arguments that “the desire to amass wealth without attracting government attention is one of the primary motivations behind the cross-border transfer of illicit capital.”

The GFI study makes two vital points amongst others that will surely stoke ongoing debates in the country. One: the drain bloated massively in the era of economic liberalisation and reforms starting with 1991. Two: “High net-worth individuals and private companies were found to be the primary drivers of illicit flows out of India's private sector.” Conversely, “India's underground economy is also a significant driver of illicit financial flows.”

Tax havens

As Mr. Baker says: “What is clear is that, during the post-reform period of 1991-2008, deregulation and trade liberalisation have accelerated the outflow of illicit money from the Indian economy. The opportunities for trade mispricing have grown, and expansion of the global shadow financial system accommodates hot money, particularly in island tax havens. Disguised corporations situated in secrecy jurisdictions enable billions of dollars shifting out of India to “round trip,” coming back into short and long-term investments, often with the intention of generating unrecorded transfers again in a self-reinforcing cycle.” Interestingly, the points about high net-worth individuals (HNWIs) and corporates and ‘mispricing' take the debate way beyond the clichéd ‘corrupt politician' explanation.

Lauds reform

The report, while stressing these factors, says that given the limitations of available data, it found “scant evidence that imprudent macroeconomic policies drove illicit flows from the country.” It lauds the post 1991-reform era. And praises Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for launching “India's free market reforms that saved the country,” in its view, “from financial ruin and placed it on a path to sustained economic growth.” On the role of macroeconomic policies in the outflows, it says there is yet work to be done, data to be generated.

But its own evidence on how the outflows escalated post-1991 is pretty damning. And India's liberalisation itself — in which period the GFI study records the greatest drain — was about a sea change in macroeconomic policies. The study notes a rise in inequality in the reform period. And acknowledges, in its summary, that “A more skewed distribution of income implies that there are many more HNWIs in India now than ever before.” It implies that governance issues, deregulation without new oversight and a complex web of other factors were more to blame.

GFI calls for measures that would require country-by-country reporting of sales, profits and taxes paid by multinational corporations. It recommends India should curb ‘trade mispricing.' Because “transfers of illicit capital through trade mispricing account for 77.6 per cent of total outflows from India over the period 1948-2008.” It advises steps that would require automatic cross-border exchange of tax information on personal and business accounts. And actions that would harmonise vital matters under anti-money laundering laws across nations.