The interminable debate about black money goes on. The recent raids on high profile people – who may have been forewarned by the much publicised inquiry in their cases – have again put the spotlight on corruption and black money. This would seem strange given the fact that in the last few months we had the Income Declaration Scheme 2016, Demonetisation and the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana not to mention a slew of stringent measures to prevent the generation of black money. After such a sustained assault, black money should have been something of the past - like the Ambassador car - but the actions of the Government prove that Government itself does not believe that the menace of black money is over.
It is a sad commentary on our system of governance that there is no credible estimate of black money permeating our system. The total of black money revealed through demonetisation, IDS, PMGKY and Foreign Black Money Act hardly touches Rs.70,000 crore – barely 0.5 per cent of our GDP – far short of any estimate of black money. The extent of tax evasion may be inferred from the fact that 90 per cent of the income-tax measure is paid by only 8,000 taxpayers – most of which are PSUs or PSBs. Clearly, something is amiss. All politicians are rags to riches stories with massive asset accumulation in a short period but not a single politician has yet been indicted under any black money law. Rather, demonetisation made even the poor line up to launder the money of their rich principals - making them accomplices in tax evasion.
Here an inconvenient fact has to be mentioned. Contrary to popular perception, small businesses do not generate black money to a significant extent. panwallahs, paanipuriwallahs etc. cause great heartburn to the middle classes who see them earning but not paying any tax. Yet it is a fact that such people hardly earn taxable income and if you pencil in the payoffs to the friendly neighbourhood cop and the municipal staff you will find that they have hardly anything left for a rainy day.
At the time of demonetisation the Government put the blame on cash transactions for generation of black money and there was massive publicity about panwallahs and subziwallahs accepting digital payments, the underlying theme being that the cash economy had been dented. However, after re-monetisation, small traders have reverted back to cash because with a literacy rate of barely 50 per cent, most Indians are unable come on the digital platform. Also cash is the most convenient medium of payment and no commission is to be paid to companies like Paytm.
But legitimate cash transactions are not an impediment in the fight against black money because contrary to the Government’s perception, most of the black money is not held in cash and only a small percentage of black money is held in gold and jewellery. Some of the black money is invested in immovable property but the maximum amount of black money has been invested in business - earning returns for their owners.
Big businesses are in another league. They have to spend money to get permissions to carry on or expand their businesses, get government contracts or simply to remain in the good books of people who matter. Perforce, big businesses have to generate black money. Not accounting properly for property sales, scrap sales, taking kickbacks in contracts etc. are some of the methods used to generate black money. Part of this money is paid to political parties and a part is paid to bureaucrats and politicians. We have the CBI and State ACBs to catch the recipients of black money but only the Income-tax Department to check the generation of black money. Given the limited remit of the tax department, no broad based investigation is taken up – only particular cases are scrutinised. No wonder, no Government – be it Congress or BJP – wants an institution like Lokpal, which would have the power to carry investigations to their logical end, to come up.
At this juncture two courses of action present themselves. Since there is a general but unstated consensus in favour of black money – as evidenced in the popular participation in money laundering at the time of demonetisation – we can let things go on as before. The alternative is more difficult.
Firstly, the Government needs to introspect honestly as to why the stringent steps taken to unearth black money have failed. Probably, the Income-tax Department with its endemic shortages – 90 per cent in the topmost cadre of Principal Chief Commissioner and 50 per cent in most other cadres – combined with a deficient work culture has been entrusted with an unachievable task. We need to provide sufficient manpower, training and infrastructure to tax officials if we are to get the results we want.
Secondly, we would have to use technology innovatively - not limiting it to replace typewriters by computers. For example, if we were to use the computing power available today to match the balance sheets of major taxpayers against each other we would get mismatches in sales-purchases, loans-debts and trading results which would provide meaningful grounds for scrutiny of tax returns.
Thirdly, our laws are strict but enforcement is lax. Income-tax laws have to be made simple and enforced rigorously. The law would have to be amended to punish persons facilitating tax evasion. Tax Units would have to be stationed abroad to gather intelligence about activities of Indian taxpayers.
Finally, the accounts of loan defaulters would have to be scrutinised jointly by the banks and the tax department to find out if money has indeed been siphoned off and if so the whereabouts of the defalcated money. To sum up, honest and sustained efforts are required to reach the treasure troves of black money. Empty threats may get votes and public approbation but threats alone will never persuade black money holders to surrender their ill-gotten wealth.
The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner, Income Tax.