Union Govt 'Has No Data' on Indians' Offshore Shell Companies – But Task Force Running Since 2017

The government had earlier identified 2,38,223 companies as shell companies between 2018-2021.

New Delhi: The Modi government is under fire for not sharing any information on ‘shell companies’ in the Rajya Sabha yesterday as despite saying that they have no information, the government had identified 2,38,223 companies as shell companies between 2018-2021. The Union Minister of State for Corporate Affairs Rao Inderjit Singh had said as much in a written reply to a question in Rajya Sabha on July 27, 2021.

MP Mahua Mitra pointed this out and said it was odd that the “government identified 238,223 shell companies between 2018 and 2021, without any specific definition in law.”

In its press release, the Ministry of Corporate Affairs had said that “there is no definition of the term “Shell Company” in the Companies Act and it normally refers to a company without active business operation or significant assets, which in some cases are used for illegal purpose such as tax evasion, money laundering, obscuring ownership, benami properties etc.”

The Union government has now told parliament that is has no data on offshore accounts held by Indians. This revelation, made in response to a question by CPI(M) MP John Brittas, comes close on the heels of Rahul Gandhi claiming that Rs 20,000 crore had “suddenly arrived” in Adani’s “shell companies”.

In a written reply on March 21, the government said that “the data/details regarding offshore shell companies owned by Indian citizens is not available”, The Telegraph reported. “On whether it had acted to collect details of offshore shell companies whose “ultimate beneficial ownership” was held by Indian citizens, the government suggested the question of such action “does not arise” since “an offshore shell company is not defined in the acts administered by the ministry of finance”,” the newspaper stated.

In his question, Brittas had asked:

“(a) The details of offshore shell companies whose Ultimate Beneficial Ownership (UBO) are held by Indian citizens

“(b) The details of actions so far taken by government to collect the details of UBO of Indian citizens in offshore companies incorporated in tax-haven countries

“(c) The status of actions taken against those Indian citizens whose names were revealed through Panama Paper, Pandora Paper, Paradise Paper and such other leaks

“(d) The details of foreign governments who have offered the Union government to share the offshore dealings of Indian citizens and

“(e) The details thereof and the actions taken thereon.”

The government said in had no data on this question, and also did not say how many Indians were named in the Panama Papers, Paradise Papers, Pandora Papers and other leaked documents.

Instead, speaking in vague terms, junior finance minister Pankaj Chaudhary said that “undisclosed income of more than Rs 13,800 crore have been brought to tax” in the Panama and Paradise Paper leaks cases as on December 31, 2022, and that “more than 250 India-linked entities have been identified in Pandora Paper leaks”.

He also said that “undisclosed income of more than Rs 8,468 crore have been brought to tax and penalty of more than Rs 1,294 crore levied” on account of “deposits made in unreported foreign bank accounts in HSBC cases” – but did not mention who had been penalised.

As on December 31, 2022, “assessments under the Black Money (Undisclosed Foreign Income and Assets) and Imposition of Tax Act, 2015, have been completed in 408 cases, raising tax demand of over Rs 15,664 crores”, the response continued.

While the government has now said it does not have details of offshore shell companies held by Indian citizens, in February 2017 it had set up a task force to investigate “the menace of companies indulging in illegal activities including facilitation of tax evasion and commonly referred to as ‘Shell Companies’”. By June 2018, the Ministry of Finance said that this task force had already met eight times and “taken pro-active and coordinated steps to check the menace of shell companies”.