has replaced Kolkata
to become the new capital of shell firms that evade taxes.
According to the Income Tax
(I-T) department, a majority of the companies
featuring on the new list of shell firms provided by the government are based in Surat. Kolkata
had topped the first list.
The tax department began tightening the noose around shell firms earlier this year, as more details about such companies
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 Surat.
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 Kolkata
between 2011 and 2015, to launder money.
The probe further revealed that Surat
had become a safer bet for shell firms compared with Kolkata
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 Surat
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 companies
launder money,” said a tax consultant, requesting anonymity.
Under one such scheme, called “layering”, which the Surat
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 Surat
replaced Kolkata, which was the previous centre for shell companies
Also, shell companies
based in West Bengal
have already been prosecuted, said another I-T official. “The continuous crackdown on companies
by us is another probable reason for entities avoiding West Bengal
to launder money through shell routes,” he added.
The action on shell companies
gathered momentum in August, when the Ministry of Corporate Affairs identified 331 such firms. About 150 of these were in Kolkata.
The government decided to crack down on such sham transactions after the Special Investigation Team (SIT) on black money suggested a mechanism to detect shell companies
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 shell companies