The Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill aimed at preventing culprits from evading the legal process and fleeing the country was today passed by the Lok Sabha, as the opposition questioned the government's sincerity in taking any action against them.
The House later passed the legislation by a voice vote as Finance Minister Piyush Goyal said the government had brought an ordinance before introducing the bill in Parliament which reflected its "aggressiveness" in acting against black money and such offenders.
Goyal also asked why the UPA government had not brought a legislation like this.
He said the Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill 2013 gave power to the agencies to seize properties which are not only in the name of offender, but also the ones that are 'benami'.
To opposition demand to bring the bill with retrospective effect to book offenders who have already fled, Goyal said it was not possible as the legislation was and the government "knows how to bring the accused to book".
During the almost two-hour long debate on the bill, the opposition questioned the government's sincerity in acting against economic offenders saying many of them have fled the country during its rule, even as the BJP maintained that the banks were being helped to recover their money.
The attack was launched by RSP member N K Premchandran, followed by several other opposition MPs, who charged the government with letting the accused like Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi to flee the country under its rule.
Demanding a JPC probe into these incidents to bring out the truth, Premachandran also said the Bill should be sent to the standing committee for evaluation, while maintaining that he was opposed to bringing the ordinance.
While stringent action must be taken against economic offenders, the government should examine whether such a law would be legally sustainable as everybody has a right to justice and is presumed to be not guilty till proven guilty, the RSP member said.
Initiating the debate on the bill, Nishikant Dubey (BJP) strongly supported the measure saying it will allow the government to recover its dues from the absconding offenders.
He claimed that absconding accused like Mallya, Modi, Choksi were "products of the Congress government", which had also "facilitated" their scams.
He alleged that then finance minister P C Chidambaram had "tweaked rules" to help certain firms linked to some of these accused days before the BJP government took over in 2014.
Rs 9.93 trillion of the Rs 10 trillion of non- performing assets (NPAs) had originated during the UPA era, he said, adding that countries like the UK, US and China amended their laws to deal with such offences, but the UPA government never did it.
Shashi Tharoor (Cong) said there was a significant gap between the government's "rhetoric and action" and took a dig, saying that Nirav Modi was photographed with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Davos.
The Prime Minister had promised to be a "chowkidar", he said referring to a number of economic offenders fleeing the country.
Most of the NPAs have been registered under the BJP government, Tharoor said, adding that the entire exercise of bring the bill was "full of tokenism".
Tharoor also questioned why only those cases where the total value involved in such offences of Rs 100 crore or more was being brought under the purview of the bill.
He said it was "laughable" if the government thinks that selling the properties of an economic offender will bring him back.
He also noted that MPs have the responsibility to ensure that any bill that is passed in Parliament is legally feasible, while lamenting that in the last 25 years, the government could extradite only one offender.
T G Venkatesh Babu (AIADMK) said the intent of the bill was doubtful and dubbed it as "toothless." He also accused the Modi government of giving enough time to Nirav Modi and Mallya to escape from India.
He also stressed the need to empower the banks to achieve recoveries from loan defaulters. "Loan waivers or write-offs should be a thing of past."
Kalyan Banerjee (TMC) said the bill was discriminatory as it applied only in cases of economic offences of total value involved Rs 100 crore or more and not on economic offences of value less than Rs 100 crore.
"I will be very happy if you will delete it. Anyone who has even stolen even one rupee, the act should be applicable to them," Banerjee said. He also pointed out that people were suffering from insecurity in keeping money in the banks.
Tathagata Satpathy (BJD) said India does not lack laws or regulations to deal with economic offenders like Nirav Modi or Vijay Mallya.
"What is need of bringing new law (the Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill) instead of plugging loopholes in old laws like the Prevention of Money Laundering Act or SARFESI Act," he argued. "Are you going to create better India or create India that will scare businessmen to another country," he added.
M B Rajesh (CPI-M) said after wasting four years, the government came out with a bill with controversial provisions. "The Prime Minister slept and facilitated the safe passage of 31 economic offenders," he said.
Supriya Sule (NCP) raised the issue of rights of workers of companies promoted by economic fugitives like Modi and Mallya.
Dushyant Chautala (Indian National Lok Dal) and Kaulshendra Kumar (JDU) supported the Bill, but questioned why was the new legislation capping the amount to Rs 100 crore.