Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ordered a multiagency investigation into the Panama Papers exposé, which includes the names of more than 500 Indians ranging from Bollywood stars to big industrialists and a real estate tycoon.
Calling such reports “a healthy step,” Finance Minister Arun Jaitley Tuesday promised quick action. “Whichever accounts are found to be unlawful, strict action as per existing law is going to be taken against them," he said.
One of Modi’s major election promises had been to crack down on tax evaders and bring back billions of dollars of illegal money stashed in tax havens.
The Indian Express newspaper was among the media organizations involved in the eight-month investigation based on a leak of over 11 million documents of the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca.
The rich and famous Indians who had connections to offshore financial firms in Panama include Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, actress and model Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, the promoter of India’s biggest realty firm, K.P. Singh, and Vinod Adani who is the elder brother of industrialist Gautam Adani.
Some of those named by the Indian Express said Monday their offshore accounts were legitimate.
The newspaper also found a trail of "payoffs" by an Italian firm via offshore companies for defense supplies sold to India.
Calling this “the tip of the iceberg,” Indian financial experts said it is widely accepted that tax evasion in India is huge and much of the so-called “black money” gets parked in havens overseas.
A report by Washington-based think-tank Global Financial Integrity has estimated that India suffered $344 billion in illicit fund outflows between 2002 and 2011.
Arun Kumar, a former professor of economics with Jawaharlal Nehru University and author of The Black Economy in India, said the total amount India has lost since independence could be much bigger.
“Our own recent estimate suggests that India has lost about $2 trillion worth of capital from 1948 to 2012. This includes the interest that may have been earned on the money that has been taken out. So we are talking about large sums of money which have been lost to a country which is very poor and where capital is short,” Kumar said.
Slow to crack down
Pointing out that the government has made slow progress on its promise to crack down on “black money,” experts say the pressing need is for the government to detect those who generate black money in India, because it is difficult to track it once it has been spirited overseas.
Although India has many laws against tax evasion, enforcement is very weak.
“In India it has become very easy to generate black income, because the system is very leaky, governance is very poor, and almost all the regulatory authorities that exist in India and they are a very large number, they are apparently all corrupted, the political class is corrupted,” Kumar said.
Following his election promise to crack down on tax evasion, Modi has enacted a "black money" law that imposes tough penalties and a jail term for tax evaders who fail to declare their overseas incomes.
Modi last year also joined an agreement by leaders from the Group of 20 countries to automatically exchange tax information on a reciprocal basis by the end of 2018.
The Indian government has also signed a tax information sharing agreement with the United States to combat offshore tax dodging.
“The world is going to now become increasingly more transparent. Countries are cooperating with each other,” said Finance Minister Jaitley, who defends the government’s commitment to track undisclosed wealth both in India and overseas.