India: New Push to Chase Money in Swiss Banks

After Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's refusal to divulge details of billions of dollars allegedly stashed away abroad by Indians, anti-corruption crusaders are banking their hopes on promised Wikileaks revelations.

At a press conference in London on Monday Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was handed two CDs with details of secret accounts held by tax evaders from several countries, including India, by former Swiss banker Rudolf Elmer.

"Assange and Wikileaks are the best hope we have of getting at who and how much is involved," said Vineet Narain, one of India's best known campaigners against the country's vast "black" or parallel economy, which feeds into the international secret accounts system.

Narain said two decades of campaigning against the system, that includes obtaining landmark rulings against corruption from the Supreme Court, had taught him that none of the major political parties is serious about a system which enables the elite to spirit away large sums of money and stash them in tax havens.

In a report released in November 2010 the Washington-based Centre for International Policy (CIP) estimated that an average of 19.3 billion dollars leaves India each year. Since independence from British colonial rule in 1947 India has lost 462 billion dollars by a "conservative estimate", the report said.

Singh is under pressure to act over numerous instances of corruption surfacing in recent months, but he told media on Wednesday that disclosing details of the secret accounts would violate international treaties on double taxation. "The information will not be made public. It will be a violation of the treaties.

"There are no instant solutions to bringing back what is called black money. We have got some information and that has been provided to us for use in the collection of taxes," Singh added.

Singh's plea of helplessness has cut no ice with the Supreme Court which is hearing a public interest litigation on large nest eggs, possibly running into trillions of dollars, illegally maintained abroad by Indians.

At a session on Wednesday, Justice Sudarshan Reddy remarked: "People are taking money out to avoid taxation. We are talking about pure and simple theft of the national economy. We are talking mind-boggling crime."

India has signed independent treaties with several countries and territories to share information on illegal transfers. These follow guidelines laid down by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The petition before the Supreme Court, filed by leading lawyer and politician Ram Jethmalani, is based on the refusal of the government to reveal the names of Indian clients that form part of data that a former employee of Liechtenstein's biggest bank sold to the German secret service for five million euros.

Indian names are also said to figure in another list that officials in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia acquired recently on a CD for 2.5 million euros.

Singh's reluctance to reveal names has led the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to level charges that his government had something to hide.

BJP leader Nitin Gadkari maintains in public speeches that several trillion dollars have been secreted away in tax havens. "Any hesitation will raise doubts about the integrity of the people now ruling the country," he said.

But Narain said the BJP did nothing to stem the flow of money abroad during its six-year stint in national power between 1998 and 2004. "The CIP report shows that more than 125 billion dollars were spirited out of the country in 2000-2008 and the BJP has to take some of the responsibility."

The national secretary of the Communist Party of India, D. Raja, told IPS that the funds lying abroad should be brought back and invested in development activities. "The government can easily take up the issue with the Swiss Banks Association and the Swiss government, but is showing reluctance to do so - let us wait for Assange to come out with the names."

Raja said that the proceeds of corruption invariably found their way into secret accounts abroad and the proportions were large enough to represent a serious threat to the economy.

Singh's government is currently fending off charges by its own Comptroller and Auditor General that fraudulent tendering in the sale of second generation mobile phone spectrum licenses had caused losses worth 40 billion dollars.

The government also has to deal with embarrassing calls for two senior constitutional functionaries, the chairman of the National Human Rights commission, K.G. Balakrishnan, and the Central Vigilance Commissioner, P.J. Thomas, to resign for alleged corruption before they took up their current assignments.

Balakrishnan is under investigation for acts committed while he was the chief justice of India while Thomas served as secretary or chief official to the department of telecommunications during the sale of 2G licenses in 2008.

Thomas continues in office while facing trial for his role in imports that caused massive losses to the exchequer in 1991-92.

[Source: By Ranjit Devraj, IPS, New Delhi, 21Jan11]

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