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City of ploy: Surat beats Kolkata to become India's new shell firm capital

Over 80% of 2,138 shell firms that deposited unaccounted cash of Rs 5,000 cr during note ban were from Surat

Shrimi Choudhary  |  Mumbai 

shell firms, blackmoney, income tax, investigation, crackdown
Illustration by Binay Sinha

has replaced to become the new capital of shell firms that evade taxes.

According to the (I-T) department, a majority of the featuring on the new list of shell firms provided by the government are based in had topped the first list.

The tax department began tightening the noose around shell firms earlier this year, as more details about such came to light after demonetisation.

In the new list, tax officials have found that over 80 per cent of the 2,138 shell firms, which had deposited unaccounted cash of at least Rs 5,000 crore during the note ban, were from The tax department expects this number to go up.

This list featured 5,800 shell companies, shortlisted by the finance ministry, which had deposits of Rs 17,000 crore in near zero-balance accounts after demonetisation and nearly an equal amount of withdrawal thereafter.

Earlier, the tax department had identified 16,000 shell firms floated in between 2011 and 2015, to launder money.

The probe further revealed that had become a safer bet for shell firms compared with for two main reasons. First, Surat’s diamond business has also resulted in a flourishing parallel trade, with traders shipping diamonds worth millions of dollars illegally abroad, mostly to Dubai and South Asian countries, from where they can be sold to western markets. Since the system was in place and operators were well-versed with the parallel economy, it was easy, explained a senior I-T official.

The second reason is that also has indirect exposure to overseas markets, which is complex and tough to crack.

The earlier modus operandi of converting black money into white was to buy shares of listed shell firms, jack up their prices, sell shares after a year and claim long-term capital gains exemptions. 

However, in the new cases, the entities are adopting new strategies to make transactions more complex in nature.

is known for complex financial structures, which have evolved over the years. There are professional services firms, chartered accountants, and lawyers located both overseas and in India, who help such launder money,” said a tax consultant, requesting anonymity. 

Under one such scheme, called “layering”, which the operators have mastered, laundering takes place through multiple transactions involving several entities making it difficult to expose the money trail, the officer pointed out.

In the case of shell companies, assets are seldom in the beneficiary’s name and money moves to jurisdictions where Indian law has no reach. 

“In the recent past, we have come across a significant number of cases where promoters have parked money in overseas bank accounts with some links with Surat-based firms. The matter is currently under investigation,” said the officer quoted above.

The I-T officer said this was how replaced Kolkata, which was the previous centre for since 1980.

City of ploy: Surat pips Kolkata to become the new shell firm capital
Also, based in have already been prosecuted, said another I-T official. “The continuous crackdown on in by us is another probable reason for entities avoiding to launder money through shell routes,” he added. 

The action on gathered momentum in August, when the Ministry of Corporate Affairs identified 331 such firms. About 150 of these were in

Acting on the list, the capital market regulator (Sebi) directed stock exchanges to immediately restrict trading in these firms.

The government decided to crack down on such sham transactions after the Special Investigation Team (SIT) on black money suggested a mechanism to detect and put in place checks and balances to curb stock market abuse.

In the last three years, the tax department has identified over 1,155 shell companies, which were used as conduits by over 22,000 beneficiaries. The amount involved in non-genuine transactions of such beneficiaries was over Rs 13,300 crore. So far, it has launched criminal prosecution complaints against 47 persons. 

Meanwhile, the department has also initiated action against chartered accountants involved in helping to flourish. 

First Published: Thu, November 16 2017. 08:10 IST
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