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Swiss bank money: India's approach is all wrong

Last updated on: August 24, 2009 

Image: Inset: R Vaidyanathan
Vicky Nanjappa

It was a slap on the face for the Indian government when it was told by the Swiss banks that India was not welcome on a 'name-fishing' expedition.

According to various studies that have been conducted including the one by the Global Financial Integrity, approximately Rs 692,328 crore (Rs 6923.28 billion) Indian money is stashed away in the Swiss banks alone.

R Vaidyanathan, a professor of finance in the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, who has conducted detail studies on hidden Indian money in the Swiss banks, says getting the names of the people is not as easy as it is being made out to be.

In this interview with Senior Associate Editor Vicky Nanjappa, Vaidyanathan explains what India should do to successfully unearth the identity of these people. Excerpts

The Swiss banks have warned India against any name-fishing expedition. Your views please.

(Laughs). I don't find anything new about it. The Swiss banks have always maintained that you cannot approach them and ask for random names. You just cannot go to them with one ordinary list and ask for details.

Swiss bank money: India's approach is all wrong

Do you think that India has been addressing this issue in the right manner?

I am afraid no. This is just not the way to do it.

How should, then, India approach this problem? You yourself had once said that bringing that money back would solve a lot of our internal problems.

The Swiss banks expect us to approach them on the basis of the double taxation treaty. We need to be specific.

First we need to identify the people, ready a case file, find out the antecedents of the person and give them solid proof as to how these persons have brought in this money.

India, on the other hand, handed them a directory of names and asked for details.

Swiss bank money: India's approach is all wrong

Recently Swiss bank UBS AG turned over details of 4,450 secret accounts to the US Internal Revenue Service. Was it possible because US is a super power?

Not at all. The fact that it is a super power has no bearing on the manner in which the Swiss banks function. The US has not got the financial details of the persons they wanted overnight.

They spent years investigating the suspects, then after collecting sufficient proof they approached the local courts.

When the US authorities presented their case before the court, they provided specific details of travel log, the persons that were contacted in the past several years, their entire source of income and also on how it has been generated.

Just look at how much exhaustive work has gone into it. India must adopt the same pattern and not just go to the Swiss bank with a sheet of paper and ask for names.

Has India ever been successful in fishing out details from the Swiss banks?

I am afraid no... Yes on one occasion, they had asked for the details of one Hassan Ali. We all know how that expedition of India's went. Our case was returned on the ground that we had submitted forged documents. I have not heard anything since then.

Swiss bank money: India's approach is all wrong

Do you think the Indian government is committed to the cause of getting back illegal money stashed away in the Swiss banks?

The President of India (Pritibha Patil) during her address in the Parliament had spoken about this issue. However, none have spoken of a time frame.

At the moment it seems that the government has not done its homework. A political will is required in such cases and unless that it there, I am afraid nothing is going to happen.

The Indian government needs to take up this issue on a top priority basis. But judging by how things are moving this is not the case. I feel that there are certain vested interests which are working against this cause and this seems to have an overriding effect on the Indian government.

This issue was first raised by the Bhratiya Janata Party. Do you think a BJP government would have addressed this issue better?

I don't know and I really cannot say. I don't want to mix this issue with politics. For me the only concern is that the money should be brought back to save the Indian economy. It is definitely not a party-based issue.

Swiss bank money: India's approach is all wrong

Why should countries change according to the wishes of the Swiss banks. Don't you think it is easier if the Swiss banks change their attitude instead?

Well, that sounds good. But it is a 350-year practice and it has not changed. What more do I say?

But the world is not the same it used to be 350 years back. There are more terror funds in the Swiss bankn now. Don't you think it is irresponsible on their part to be so choosy and difficult about the whole thing?

I agree that a lot has changed. I do get a feeling that in due course there would also be a change in attitude of the Swiss authorities.

Considerable amount of international pressure has also been building up on this issue which is making the banks rethink about their mode of operation.

However I must add here that following the international pressure, lot of money is now being withdrawn from the Swiss banks and transferred to Singapore.