The BJP-led NDA government on Monday ordered the formation of a special agency to investigate Indians who figure in the ‘Panama papers’ — a set of over 11 million leaked documents that reveal how the rich and connected around the world used tax havens for salting away their wealth.
The documents, about the clients of one of the world’s biggest law firms offering such services, was leaked to a German newspaper, which in turn shared it with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
The multi-agency group that was set up following directions from Prime Minister Narendra Modi will consist of officers from the investigative units of the Central Board of Direct Taxes, the Financial Intelligence Union and Foreign Tax & Tax Research division and the Reserve Bank of India.
The Special Investigation Team on Black Money, appointed under the Supreme Court’s directions, had in its third report submitted last year to the court said that various departments were not prepared to share the information received in tax evasion cases.
Based on an investigation with the ICIJ of the documents leaked from the secret files of Mossack Fonseca, a law firm headquartered in tax haven Panama, with offices in 42 countries and several more franchises, The Indian Express reported on Monday that over 500 Indians, including high-profile actors and businessmen, could have links to secret firms in overseas tax havens.
Among those the newspaper named in its reports are actors Amitabh Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, real estate firm DLF’s promoter K.P. Singh and Vinod Adani, elder brother of Adani Group founder and chairman Gautam Adani. Several of those the newspaper named have denied any wrongdoing.
The records were first accessed by Munich-based newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung. Following the leaks, tax authorities in the U.K., France, New Zealand and Australia said they would look into the charges of money laundering or tax avoidance, arising from the expose.
Fresh ammunition to Opposition
Over a decade back India started liberalising overseas investments by Indian residents. Today up to $25,000 can be invested annually.
It is still not clear how many of the Indian names figuring in the Panama papers are illegal or criminal. If it is illegal or criminal, then the individuals and firms can be investigated for a host of violations ranging from money laundering to tax evasion.
“If it is really correct, then the persons cannot easily avoid punishment under the Black Money Act of 2015 if it is vigorously enforced,” Justice M.B. Shah, chairman, of the SIT on black money told The Hindu over phone.
The expose has given the Opposition parties fresh opportunity to attack Prime Minister Narendra Modi for failing to deliver on his pre-polls promise of bringing back black money held overseas.
In a statement on Monday’s expose, the Finance Ministry said the government will go all out to obtain maximum information from all sources, including from foreign governments, to help the investigations arising out of the Panama leaks.
The expose, it said, will help to detect and prevent the generation of black money.
Those who had not taken advantage of the compliance window last year to declare illegal assets abroad will find “such adventurism extremely costly,” Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told a Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) function.
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