India and Switzerland ties have been under a strain over the government’s demand for more details on Indian Swiss account holders. In his first interview on the subject, Swiss Ambassador to India Linus Von Castelmur says, Switzerland will only cooperate with the Indian government if it provides independent investigations on those accounts they believe constitute fraud or black money. He was speaking to Diplomatic Editor Suhasini Haidar.
Q.The Swiss Federal Council has just agreed to join the OECD’s Global framework on the automatic sharing of tax information…tell us how this will work, especially for Indian cases involving black money?
A. It’s a long process. These are technical and political issue and we have to proceed in a balanced side. But we at the Swiss side fully understand the position of the Indian side. But we need some understanding of our position too. Very often, talking about black money everyone is always looking to Switzerland , but there are many other places, and places within India they should look too. The past issues are really the problem. How can we deal with several decades when money was flowing into Switzerland and money was not taxed, that is the problem. In the present, Switzerland and India are in the same boat. In 2017 we will join the new standard on automatic tax information exchange and each and every bank holder and authorities will have to communicate and exchange information automatically. That’s the good news. You cannot make the past undone, however. We must respect our national legislation, and for the past there is secrecy. If there is evidence of fraud then the banks will cooperate, we will answer for them. But you cannot say, give us all Indian account holders, this is not possible. You cant just go on a fishing expedition. But if you have evidence, we will go ahead.
Because the impression is the Swiss government would rather protect its own banks and use the term “national legislation” so as to not have to share information ….
This is a misperception, atleast for the last 2-3 years. Ever since we signed the double taxation treaty we have been moving ahead. But for a long time Switzerland did have a very restrictive stance, but I think this has been changing over the past decade.
The Swiss National Bank figures say they are holding $2.5 billion or 14,000 crore rupees of wealth belonging to Indians. Is there an estimate of how much of this is illegal?
These are official figures, mandated by our laws to be announced each year by the banks, but we only know the provenance of the money, not the status.
I ask because the SIT report spoke of the worry that much of this money is being emptied out and being rerouted. Is the Swiss government now worried that the banking industry will suffer because of the Indian focus on this?
I don’t think so. India is a small part of the money deposited in Swiss banks, it is negligible. To the other part of the question, yes, if you had black money in the last ten years and wanted to even put it into a Swiss bank, then you have misread the new banking laws. There is no impunity anymore if you have committed fraud, and Switzerland is full cooperating with other authorities for this.
Even so 3 European banks are under investigation for this kind of re-routing of which 2 are Swiss banks.
I think the Swiss banking sector is in a crisis and had to re-invent itself and find new values. Not only to respect the laws of the countries they are operating but also develop a value system for what is right. Yes it happened. But Swiss banks and others have been heavily fined recently, so the process is in place.
Was the Swiss decision to join the global framework linked to PM Modi’s speech at the G-20 on black money?
I think this is non-realistic. India is a small fraction of the money deposited in Switzerland, so that is unlikely.
You spoke of fishing expeditions. In parliament the finance minister said the government has dispatched a number of queries based on independent investigations. How soon could we see results on these?
We had a meeting in February 2014 here of a high level delegation, and one led by (Revenue Secretary Shaktikanta) Das went to Berne in October, so we have a close understanding of how much we can cooperate. There are several cases where Indian authorities have done independent investigations and those cases are going fine, we are cooperating on them. When they come to us on the basis of the stolen (HSBC) list, or data not from proper sources, Switzerland cannot cooperate.
Would you say then that the new government’s claim that they would bring back money in 100 days was unrealistic?
That is for India to determine.
The focus of India-Switzerland ties has been on the exchange of information and tracking down black money. Has this led to a strain in ties?
I don’t think so. I think the Swiss government and enterprise are excited about the new reforms promised. We particularly welcome the new initiatives to attract investment, which we think are excellent. Swiss businesseses are there for the long term. With the “make in India” campaign India will be able to establish itself as a manufacturing hub and swiss enterprise would welcome that. Indian companies should come and set up R&D facilities in India too. There are more than 220 Swiss companies work in India giving jobs to over 1,00,000 people. Many of them have also set up R&D facilities in India. It is difficult in a globalized world to grow in isolation. India has a lot of advantages when it comes to market size and labour. Switzerland has a strong talent pool and research talents, so I wish for an early conclusion of the Free Trade Agreement to take all this further.
When you speak of R&D facilities, one sticking point has been intellectual property rights particularly in the field of pharma… what are you hoping for from the Indian government in order to increase investment?
Intellectual property rights is important for every country…even for India, a country that has launched a Mars mission, you have research you want to protect. Our feeling is that as India grows more prominent, it will see these issues as we do. With all due respect to healthcare, the availability of cheap and accessible healthcare has nothing to do with respecting intellectual property rights. That can be solved another way. You can subsidise or give free medicines. Why should richer Indians not pay the right price for a highly specialized medical product? You should not link this to the government’s duties in subsidizing healthcare.
Given the differences in positions, how close are the two countries to an FTA?
We are 95% of the way there. With a push, we could announce it very soon. And soon we hope to sign a new visa regime for diplomats, and hope to make general visas much easier too, and they will be issued within 24-hours very soon. We also hope PM Modi will come to Davos along with some of the other senior ministers. And our President hopes to come here early next year.