Millennium Post

The exposé

The exposé

The most extensive revelation around offshore trusts in the form of Pandora Papers may not have come as a shock to many. A handful of other revelations in the past as well — though, of comparatively smaller margins — have already established the notion that ultra-rich individuals have been hiding their illegitimate wealth in offshore entities. The extent and modalities of the Pandora Papers revelation are of unprecedented scale — but the underlying motives behind these are not strange. It is an indication of the fact that corruption and black money across the world — including India — are on the rise. Ironically, people suspected of concealing illegitimate wealth include many among the wealthiest across the world — including 330 politicians and 130 Forbes billionaires, apart from celebrities, fraudsters, drug dealers etc. But the ICIJ has clarified that the suspected names go beyond the list of billionaires to include small business owners, doctors and others who are not known to attract 'public spotlight'. This factor points towards the widespread prevalence of black money, corruption, tax evasion etc. Thanks to the year-long voluminous efforts of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists which has extracted and analysed 2.94 terabytes of data from more than 11.9 million records, we are again feeling an urge to put checks on fraudulent wealth management. We did so after Panama and Paradise leaks but it appears that those steps failed to deliver the desired impact. One of the striking features of Pandora revelation — in contrast to HSBC, Paradise Papers and Panama Papers — has been the operational trusts in offshore countries. In the current context, a trust can be understood as an arrangement set up by an entity, which is established to manage the assets of the ultimate beneficiaries through a third-party trustee. The entire process hinges around the trustee who is a legally identified component. The Indian Trusts Act, 1882 provides a legal framework for the operation of trusts. The recognition provided under the Indian laws is that a trustee can manage the assets settled in favour of the 'beneficiaries'. It is a matter of speculation as to what extent the Pandora Papers revelation would help drive change in the operation of offshore tax havens and sever the linkages of fraudulent beneficiaries with the overseas trust. Despite the breakthrough nature of Pandora revelations, it appears that not much can be expected as an outcome for various reasons. On the first hand, the operation of beneficiaries' assets by trust is legally recognized in India. So, a sweep-through action by the government cannot be expected. What looks more feasible is that investigation agencies can investigate the cases on a one-on-one basis. Apart from being an excessively time-taking exercise, the investigation hopes are also dotted with a plethora of loopholes that can be manipulated by fraudulent beneficiaries. A further hindrance to the investigation process is offered by the fact that most of the countries where offshore trusts are being operated have stringent secrecy laws; in fact, that is their USP. It is highly unlikely that they will be willing to part with their customer information when sought by investigation agencies. We already have a handful of similar cases where investigation processes are stuck in limbo. Just having more of such sloppy cases as an outcome of the Pandora investigation will be gross underutilization of the quantum of revelation we have before us. The consortium of journalists has been up to its task in bringing to our notice the widespread inconsistencies we may be living through. The onus should now shift to different wings of the government to take suitable actions. To be sure, the Central government has assured a multi-agency probe involving the Central Board of Direct Taxes, Enforcement Directorate, Reserve Bank of India, and Financial Intelligence Unit. The judges of the Special Investigating Team (SIT) on black money have also emphasized urgent investigation. These steps are of course of imperative nature but a lot more has to be done to tackle the issues at hand. The government should look forward to solving the issue in a long-term and structured manner. Given the quantum of money involved in offshore investments and vested interests, the task ahead for the government is not straightforward. It is rather very complex. Furthermore, the Pandora revelations might just represent the tip of the iceberg. The buzz around the revelation may appear novel but the underlying issues of corruption, black money and tax evasion are pretty old and deep-rooted, which have reappeared before us in a monstrous form. Let us look for stronger solutions.

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