S Murlidharan

Money matters

S Murlidharan | Updated on January 17, 2018


The benami law gets it all wrong again

The benami transactions amendment Bill 2016 cleared by the Cabinet recently commits the same mistake as the original 1988 Act. While the Modi government must be complimented for instituting authority for confiscating benami properties when the earlier governments prevaricated, it too has missed the elephant in the room.

The phenomenon of benami cannot be examined in isolation. It is an offshoot of the phenomenon of black money.

When the income tax law sets store by the Annual Information Report (AIR) under which bank managers, managers of mutual funds, registrar of properties, are mandated to tip off the taxman wherever transactions of specified threshold are done, it is baffling that the benami law expects the authorities constituted under it to zero in on benami transactions on their own steam.

Learn from past

More than two decades ago, the Delhi High Court found that the promoter of Sofia Investments had tried a familiar trick — launder his black money on the eve of public issue. He got 35,000 drafts made from the same branch of a nationalised bank in fictitious names as subscribers to the public issue which came to the notice of the court. Fast forward to 2016.

Shouldn’t a bank official in similar circumstances tip off the authorities under the benami law?

Apart from officials of banks and other authorities eminently in a position to smell fish and tip off, the public at large should also be encouraged to participate in this crusade. If VP Singh in his avatar as finance minister found it expedient to reward the excise and customs officials with commission for netting tax evaders, there is a stronger case for rewarding members of public for making bold to finger a benami property holderor the real owner.

VP Singh squelched the moral issue involved by likening it to commission to sales personnel in an organisation. With public however there is no moral issue involved.

First they cannot be expected to tip off as a labour of love. They need to be motivated and the best motivation is offered by money. Second, it is the local public, as it were, that comes to know about the shenanigans of the real owners and their cats paw, the benamidars.

Protect whistleblowers

Equally important is whistleblower protection. Those offering tips must be protected either under the witness protection or whistleblower protection laws perpetually in the making or under a special regime under the benami transactions law itself.

It is all the more reason why members of public must be protected from reprisals. Officials before whom the tipsters unburden must be sworn to oath of secrecy at the pain of punitive action both for singing like a canary and leaking the valuable information on the sly. And yes, since the tips are given sub-rosa, the reward must also be given sub-rosa i.e. in cash.

There are people who bristle with self-righteous indignation even at the hint of commission as inducement.

But the scourge of black money and its concomitant, the benami holdings, cannot be tamed unless the public at large is incentivised to come out with the information in their possession. Employees honest and disgruntled, current or past often are ideally placed to finger the deviants.

The writer is a Delhi-based chartered accountant

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Published on August 08, 2016
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