Narendra Modi and his government have had quite a fascination for the black money that leaves the country. Black money is essentially money that has been earned, but on which a tax has not been paid.
During the electoral campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Modi promised that all the black money that had left Indian shores would be recovered and Rs 15 lakh deposited in the bank accounts of every Indian. Later Amit Shah, the president of the BJP, dismissed this as a chunavi jumla.
In the budget presented in February 2015, the finance minister Arun Jaitley focussed on black money and said: “The problems of poverty and inequity cannot be eliminated unless generation of black money and its concealment is dealt with effectively and forcefully.”
At the same time Jaitley unleashed a series of measures to counter the menace of black money leaving the shores of this country. “Concealment of income and assets and evasion of tax in relation to foreign assets will be prosecutable with punishment of rigorous imprisonment upto 10 years,” was one of the measures that Jaitley spoke about during the course of his speech.
Recently, the Income Tax department issued new income tax forms which asked for a plethora of information from individuals travelling abroad. This was again seen as a step to curb black money. These forms had to be withdrawn after a wave of public protests.
As per the Global Financial Integrity report titled Illicit Financial Flows from Developing Countries: 2003-2012, around $439 billion of black money left the Indian shores, between 2003 and 2012. What is interesting is that in 2003 the total amount of black money leaving India had stood at $10.1 billion. By 2012, this had jumped more than nine times to around $94.8 billion. In comparison, the money leaving China during the same period grew by less than four times during this period.
Given this, one really can’t blame the government for being overtly worried about the black money leaving the country. Also, black money that remains in the country has some benefits. Cambridge University economist Ha-Joon Chang explains this in his book Bad Samaritans—The Guilty Secrets of Rich Nations and the Threat to Global Prosperity, in the context of a minister taking a bribe (which is also black money, given that the minister is not going to declare the bribe as an income).
As he writes: “A bribe is a transfer of wealth from one person to another. It does not necessarily have negative effects on economic efficiency and growth.” If the minister taking the bribe decides to spend/invest that money in the country, it has a positive impact on economic growth, as the spending creates economic demand and the investment creates jobs. At least in theory, the idea seems to make sense.
In comparison, the black money leaving the country is a total waste. As Chang writes: “A critical issue…is whether the dirty money stays in the country. If the bribe is deposited in a Swiss bank, it cannot contribute to creating further income and jobs through investment—which is one way odious money can partially ‘redeem’ itself.”
Once we take this factor into account Modi government’s crackdown on black money leaving the shores of the country starts to make immense sense. But the question is how good are the chances of recovering the money that has already left the shores?
There is a great belief in India that all the black money is lying with banks in Switzerland. But this belief is incorrect. As Chang writes: “Switzerland is not a country living off black money deposited in its secretive banks…It is, in fact, literally the most industrialized country in the world.”
Data released by the Swiss National Bank, the central bank of Switzerland, suggests that Indian money in Swiss banks was at around Rs 14,000 crore in 2013. In 2006, the total amount had stood at Rs 41,000 crore.
The reason for this fall is simple. Over the last few years as black money and Switzerland have come into focus, it would be stupid for individuals or companies sending black money out of India, to keep sending it to Switzerland.
There are around 70 tax havens all over the world. And so this money could be anywhere. Getting all this money back would involve a lot of international diplomacy and cooperation. Also, the question is why would tax havens return this money. The economies of many tax havens run because of this black money and no one undoes a business model that is working.
An estimate made by the International Monetary Fund suggests that around $18 trillion of wealth lies in international tax havens other than Switzerland and beyond the reach of any tax authorities. Some of this money must have definitely originated in India.
Long story short—it would be next to impossible to get back any of this black money.
Now let’s get back to domestic black money. As per Chang this money if invested properly can create jobs as well as economic growth. In the Indian case a lot of this money gets invested into gold and real estate. Money going into gold does not create any jobs. And money that goes into real estate has driven up home prices in particular, all over the country, to extremely high levels. Most middle class Indians cannot afford to buy a home now.
Given this, it makes tremendous sense for the government to crack down on domestic black money, instead of making noises about recovering black money that has already left the shores of this country. Further, focus should be on ensuring that the number of people paying income tax goes up in the years to come.
In short, the black money menace first needs to be tackled domestically.
(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)
The column originally appeared on DailyO on Apr 27,2015