The political hot potato of Indian cash stashed in Swiss banks is once again in the news, with Switzerland reportedly ready to share the details of Indians suspected to have accounts.
The Modi administration has made this issue a priority after coming to power in May, with one of its first major decisions being the setting up of a Special Investigation team (SIT) on 'black money'.
India was one of the few countries where the outflow to Switzerland actually increased in 2013, rising by 43 per cent to 140 billion rupees ($2.3 billion).
Outflows from the rest of the world had fallen amid fears that Switzerland’s famed banking secrecy laws were under threat. But Indians seemed unaffected by such worries, with their combined holdings in Swiss banks now ranked 58th in the world compared to 70th in 2012.
India is one of the 36 countries with which Switzerland has signed treaties to provide administrative assistance in tax matters. A senior Swiss government official reportedly said that details of Indian individuals and entities with Swiss accounts are now being shared with India on a ‘spontaneous’ basis.
According to the Press Trust of India (PTI), the names were listed by the Swiss authorities when they began to identify the real beneficiary owners of funds held in banks in Switzerland.
“These individuals and entities are suspected to have held un-taxed money in Swiss banks through structures like trusts, domiciliary companies and other legal entities based out of countries other than India,” the unnamed official told PTI.
He did not divulge the identities of these people and entities, as well as the amount of money they had in Swiss banks, citing a confidentiality clause in the information exchange treaty between India and Switzerland.
He claimed these details are different from those in the so-called ‘HSBC list’ that had been stolen by a bank employee and later sold to European tax authorities. It allegedly contained names of foreign nationals having HSBC accounts in Geneva.
Despite repeated requests from India, Swiss authorities had so far refused to share details of the 700 Indians allegedly named in the ‘HSBC list’, claiming its local laws prohibit any assistance where account details had been sourced illegally, such as through stolen lists.
So what has brought about the cooperation from Swiss authorities now? The official said his government was very keen to work with the new Indian administration and would provide all necessary support to the SIT. It's clear then that New Delhi's emphasis on targetting tax evasion has brought about this mood change in Berne.
India loses billions of dollars a year from tax evasion, with Indians having an estimated $500 billion of money in international tax havens, such as Mauritius, Switzerland, Lichtenstein and the British Virgin islands.
The previous UPA government had come under fire for dragging its feet on the issue, leading in 2011 to the Supreme Court ordering a team headed by a judge to take over the government’s efforts to retrieve illegal funds held overseas.
Switzerland’s new-found cooperation is welcome. But the question is whether there is enough political will in India to see this investigation through to its logical end with the prosecution of those Indians who have unaccounted money in Swiss banks.