India’s government has handed over the names of more than 600 Indians with foreign bank accounts to the Supreme Court after public outrage over rampant tax evasion.
The court, which ordered the government to release the list, has given the names to an investigative team that the government set up in June to find the illegal funds that tax dodgers have parked overseas.
The court set a deadline of March 31 next year for the team to complete its probe and begin legal action against tax evaders.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi says he wants to prosecute tax dodgers and bring money stashed in tax havens back into the country but little progress has been made since his landslide election victory earlier this year.
Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi said 627 people are named on the list. They all had accounts with a Geneva branch of HSBC, information that was disclosed in 2011 by an employee of the bank and passed to India but not acted on by the previous government.
They are likely a tiny fraction of Indians with foreign bank accounts.
The Central Bureau of Investigation said in 2012 that $500bn was held by Indians in tax havens overseas. Funds are stashed in tax havens such as Liechtenstein, British Virgin Islands, Switzerland, Mauritius, Jersey and the Isle of Man.
India has a flourishing “black money” economy that functions parallel to the legal economy. Undeclared income is used to fund election campaigns and buy land or real estate in order to avoid paying property taxes.
Al Jazeera’s Nidhi Dutt, reporting from New Delhi, said “black money” is an issue that previous governments have tried to deal with at different levels with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party making it a key election issue
“The fact that they are trying to push it forward is significant. Black money is deep-rooted in Indian politics.”
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Dutt said that the identities of people named on the list were secret as they were submitted by the government in a sealed envelope. She said it was unclear whether they are high-profile earners or individuals working abroad maintaining foreign accounts.
“The question going forward is will it be sifted between who may potentially be doing wrong things or ordinary workers. That could be anyone’s guess.”
On Monday, the government disclosed the names of seven people who it said had illegal accounts abroad. That led to widespread outrage, prompting the court to step in and order the government to reveal all the names that it had.
The government told the court that it was committed to disclosing the names of people holding money abroad illegally. In an affidavit, the government said that since every account held by an Indian in a foreign country may not be illegal, it would investigate the accounts before disclosing the names of account holders.