Reportage

Treasure Island

By Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Jyotirmoy Chaudhuri

5 April 2016

For India’s industrial captains, the country’s diasporic links with the island nation of Mauritius have proved bountiful.
Photo : Pixabay / geralt

Photo : Pixabay / geralt

(In this essay from our quarterly issue ‘Diaspora Southasia Abroad’, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Jyotirmoy Chaudhuri observes how state enabled tax evasion, money laundering and the loss of billions of dollars that rightfully belong to the citizens of India. See more from the issue here.) 

The Republic of Mauritius, the land of the now extinct dodo bird, is strategically situated. A small clutch of islands roughly 800 kilometres east of Madagascar, Mauritius is the easternmost point of the continent of Africa. Mauritius has always shared a special and unique ‘umbilical’ relationship with India: at least 60 percent of the country’s population of 1.3 million are people of Indian origin, mostly descendents of indentured labour from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and other parts of Southern India who were taken to the island in the 19th century to work on sugar plantations.

These historical links have translated into a special relationship between the governments of India and Mauritius. The current chief of the National Coast Guard of Mauritius is an officer of the Indian Navy, while the national security advisor to the prime minister of Mauritius is a retired officer of the Indian Police Service. Mauritian Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam was the only non-Southasian head of government to be invited to Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony on 22 May 2014. India would like to see the country stay within its zone of influence and has arguably exerted its muscle to ensure this.

Mauritius, on its part, is invariably the first country to support India on issues raised in any international forums, including in United Nations organisations. India is the largest trading partner of Mauritius, and supplies almost all of the petroleum products used on the islands, besides substantial quantities of raw materials required for the manufacture of textiles. India not only supplies pharmaceuticals to Mauritius, but also manufactures medicines there. As India’s former High Commissioner to Mauritius T P Seetharaman said during the making of a documentary film by this writer in July 2013, “Indian companies have a presence here not only to do business with Mauritius but to do business through Mauritius to the rest of Africa. And they have certain advantages in locating in Mauritius, which has got a stable political system, a very low crime rate and a cultural milieu which Indians are familiar with because of our shared heritage and culture.”

‘Treaty shopping’ or ‘round-tripping’ is a process whereby unscrupulous individuals in India take their illegal earnings outside the country, then move the funds though different jurisdictions before bringing them back through a tax haven as clean, ‘laundered’ white money

Mauritius’ cultural milieu is, however, not the only factor that ensures the ease of doing business in the islands. Mauritius has emerged as a favoured destination for those seeking tax havens for laundering black money into India and avoiding paying taxes. Over a period of two decades, approximately 40 percent of the cumulative foreign investments of various kinds that have come to India have been routed through this small clutch of islands in the Indian Ocean whose population of 1.3 million equates to 0.104 percent of the Indian population. The question remains: how has a historic relationship based on the presence of a large Indian diaspora enabled tax evasion, money laundering and the loss of billions of dollars that rightfully belong to the citizens of India?

Mutual gains

At the heart of the framework that allows the misuse of Mauritius as a conduit for black money is the India-Mauritius Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement (DTAA) that was signed in 1982 when Indira Gandhi was prime minister. The basis of a tax treaty such as the India-Mauritius DTAA is to avoid double taxation on the income of the resident taxpayers of the treaty countries and provide tax certainty to them. India has such agreements with at least 88 countries. When a resident of one country is earning income from another, there is a question as to which of the two countries can tax that income. The tax treaties locate the right to tax incomes between the treaty countries. A spirit of reciprocity, by which each country grants some benefits to the other, is crucial to their success. Once established, tax treaties are intended to stimulate flows of investment, which are supposed to bring with it technologies and services.

Loopholes in DTAAs also allow firms to avoid paying taxes on their investments in the home country. Money can be brought in after being ‘round-tripped’ without disclosing the identities of those who really control these companies. ‘Treaty shopping’ or ‘round-tripping’ is a process whereby unscrupulous individuals in India take their illegal earnings outside the country, then move the funds though different jurisdictions before bringing them back through a tax haven as clean, ‘laundered’ white money.

While the residents of tax havens like Mauritius describe their countries as ‘low tax’ or ‘no tax’ jurisdictions, these countries also provide other benefits. Not only are tax rates low or absent, registration of companies is quick and easy while information about the source of money is difficult to come by. It is the secrecy available to the entities investing in such locations that make them attractive not only for high net-worth individuals, but also for those who benefit from the proceeds of smuggling drugs and armaments, gambling, prostitution, tax evasion and a host of other clandestine and illegal activities. It is in these countries that it is relatively easy to channel the proceeds of crime into apparently respectable corporate bodies.

 The India-Mauritius DTAA came into effect with respect to income tax and capital gains assessable for the year commencing 1 April 1983. The Agreement, however, had little impact in the pre-liberalisation era, when India remained closed to foreign direct investment (FDI). Its efficacy as a legal loophole came into play only after the economic liberalisation of the 1990s. “This agreement was, like so many other agreements of double taxation, in place but hardly noticed or used,” says former Finance and Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha. According to Sinha, “In 1992, ten years later, when [P V] Narasimha Rao was the prime minister and Dr Manmohan Singh the finance minister, they opened the Mauritius route for FDI and FII [foreign institutional investors, who invest in stock exchanges] money. And as the Indian economy kept on opening more and more, there were many who used this route to bring investments into India.”

The Mauritius Offshore Business Activities Act (MOBAA) was enacted in 1992, just after the economic liberalisation process kicked off in India in 1991. Companies incorporated under it are considered ‘residents’ of Mauritius but are subject to no income tax on the island. Two years after MOBAA was implemented, the Indian finance ministry’s Central Board of Direct Taxes issued a circular according to which capital gains earned by any resident (or firm) of Mauritius by the sale of shares of an Indian company would be taxable only in Mauritius and not India.

Investigations into the use of Mauritius as a conduit have been attempted. In March 2000, when the previous Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government was in power, investigations were initiated into the activities of 24 Mauritius-based FIIs. India’s Income Tax Department issued show-cause notices to particular FIIs asking them to explain why they should not be taxed for profits and for dividends accrued in India. Though these firms were incorporated in Mauritius under the MOBAA, it was argued that they were actually residents of other countries like Luxembourg, the UK and the US. It was claimed that these were essentially ‘shell companies’ operating through Mauritius only to take advantage of the India-Mauritius DTAA. According to the assessing officers, as these FIIs were not bona fide residents of Mauritius, they were neither residents of Mauritius nor of India and hence the benefits of the India-Mauritius DTAA should not be available to them. The Income Tax Department’s assessment of Cox and Kings Overseas Funds (Mauritius) made on 29 March 2000 for the assessment year 1997-98, for example, indicated that the company was a subsidiary of Cox and Kings Overseas Fund Incorporated in Luxembourg.

When the actions of tax officials resulted in share prices collapsing, the Income Tax Department issued a new circular in April 2000, reportedly at the behest of the then Finance Minister Sinha, which placed an embargo on tax officers conducting detailed investigations on the activities of Mauritius-based firms once they had produced a certificate from the Mauritius government about their ‘tax residency’ status. As Sinha describes it, the Income Tax Department had, slapped tax demands on some of these FIIs from the time they had started doing business in India – which was quite a few years – and the demand was therefore heavy. This created a panic in the stock markets. I consulted with the Board of Revenue, Direct Taxes [CBDT, a part of the department of the Income Tax] and other concerned officials in the Ministry of Finance and we came to the conclusion that… under the Income Tax Act, the Board has the jurisdiction to issue circulars to clarify a situation. The Board issued a circular and clarified that, as before, similarly in future, these entities which came from Mauritius were not liable to pay capital gains tax in India.

Even as this circular was issued, Sinha was attacked not only by his political opponents but some within his own party for allegedly influencing officials in his ministry in an attempt to aid a US-based firm (in which his daughter-in-law was employed) which was investing in Indian shares at that time through an entity based in Mauritius. Sinha vehemently denied these allegations, but the circular was challenged in the Delhi High Court through two Public Interest Litigation petitions filed by non-government organisation Azadi Bachao Andolan (ABA) and Shiva Kant Jha, a former chief commissioner of income tax.

The ABA’s writ petition filed in the Delhi High Court held that many British and American entities were present in Mauritius only on paper, in order to sidestep taxes on their earnings from stock investments in India. Jha’s petition essentially argued that the Income Tax Department’s circular of April 2000 promoted treaty shopping and round-tripping of funds, thereby depriving the Indian exchequer of revenue.

Port Loius, capital of Mauritius Photo : Wikimedia Commons / Ashok Prabhakaran

Port Loius, capital of Mauritius
Photo : Wikimedia Commons / Ashok Prabhakaran

In May 2002, the Delhi High Court ruled that the April 2002 circular was wrong and should not have been issued. It also quashed the 18-year-old India-Mauritius DTAA on the grounds that the treaty was being used just to avoid taxes rather than encourage trade and investment. The BJP-led government’s Ministry of Finance appealed against this judgment in the Supreme Court which, on 8 October 2003, upheld the validity of the circular restoring the tax exemptions on investments by Mauritius-based FIIs in India.

Petitioner Jha pointed out that “the stand of the Mauritian company [Global Business Institute Limited, which impleaded itself in the case] and the stand of the government of India was absolutely identical.” He noted that Jaitley, then a practising lawyer, had sought leave of appeal for the Mauritian company but stopped appearing in the case thereafter. Harish Salve, senior advocate, who had represented the Union of India before the Delhi High Court in his capacity as the solicitor-general of India, appeared regularly for the Mauritian company. The government of India was represented by then-Attorney General of India Soli Sorabjee. “From the very first day, [it was] stressed… that the Indo-Mauritius treaty was all for FDI,” Jha recalled.

Financial experts in India argue that India’s treaty with Mauritius does not comprehensively handle the issue of beneficial ownership and source of funds. According to Sucheta Dalal, managing editor of Moneylife, a financial journal and website published out of Mumbai, “In the last twenty years, we have created a system where so much of foreign investment comes into the country routed through these tax havens and there is complete lack of transparency. This is in sharp contrast to doing business in India. There are so many rules for Indian entrepreneurs who are home grown and who want to do it right with Indian money. And then there is this big chunk of money which comes from abroad and no questions are asked.”

Arun Kumar, professor at the Centre for Economics and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, explains how black money is taken out:

There’s a process called layering. You take your money out through hawala, through under-invoicing [of imports], over invoicing [of exports] or transfer pricing [of products and services exchange between associated companies]. It goes to one tax jurisdiction, then to another, on to a third, fourth, and finally… when the sixth layer is there, that money has not come from India, that has come from [a tax haven such as] Cayman Islands. So the Indian government doesn’t know whose money is coming in. The Mauritius route was made available in 1999-2000 and it became convenient for those people who had taken their black money outside earlier, to bring it back through Mauritius. To register there and bring it back, questions were not being asked and later it turned out that the participatory note route was being used, which veiled where the money was coming from.

Loopholes that are deliberately maintained in India’s rules – such as the use of participatory notes in stock market transactions to conceal the identities of sources of funds – facilitate multiple layering of deals and the legitimisation of illegal money, including funds used by terrorists, through shell companies (also called shelf companies, post-box firms or nameplate companies) set up by lawyers and accountants.

A new collective
International scrutiny of tax avoidance and capital flight has increased in recent years, leading to global initiatives to stem the haemorrhaging of wealth from poorer countries (especially those with weak rule of law) and enforce controls to prevent the financing of terrorist organisations.

The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a grouping of some of the richest countries in the world, has launched its Base Erosion and Profit Sharing (or BEPS) action plan to combat tax avoidance by multinational companies. According to the OECD Centre for Tax Policy and Administration, “BEPS refers to tax planning strategies that exploit gaps and mismatches in tax rules to make profits ‘disappear’ for tax purposes or to shift profits to locations where there is little or no real activity but the taxes are low, resulting in little or no overall corporate tax being paid.”

“Tax planning or tax avoidance has been considered traditionally to be legal and the main focus of the BEPS project is to ensure that the governments come together, they take the actions that need to be taken, which includes looking at their tax treaties and looking at their own tax laws to see how these are facilitating this kind of behaviour,” explained Monica Bhatia, head of the Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information in Tax Matters, which is hosted and supported by the OECD.

The Global Forum project was restructured in September 2009 in response to a G20 request to strengthen the implementation of international taxation standards and to launch a peer-review process of national legislation in the realm of tax transparency. G20 countries have shown growing interest in promoting automatic information exchange as a tool to improve international tax compliance.

There are various estimates of the illicit flow of funds out of India. The Washington-based Global Financial Integrity (GFI) puts the figure and the interest earned on it at USD 462 billion for the period between 1948 and 2008. A P Singh, the former director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), India’s premier police investigating agency, has claimed that USD 500 billion of illegal funds were held by Indians in foreign banks. According to the white paper on ‘Black Money’ prepared by the Ministry of Finance in May 2012, the Swiss National Bank estimates that the total amount of deposits in all Swiss banks by citizens of India at the end of 2010 was around USD 2 billion. Arun Kumar places the total figure of black money generated in India at around USD 1.2 trillion for the 1948-2012 period, or over 50 percent of India’s current annual gross domestic product (GDP) which is roughly USD 2 trillion. A leaked report of the National Institute for Public Finance and Policy commissioned by the government has reportedly estimated the black economy to be around USD 1.35 trillion, or over 65 percent of India’s GDP.

Questions were raised as to whether it was fair that multinational companies with major market operations in India could set up headquarters in Mauritius and buy and sell these entities at liberty without paying a paisa to the Indian government by way of taxes

India and Mauritius have been engaged in talks since 2010 on the existing DTAA, after India asked for renegotiation of the treaty and pointed out that Mauritius needs to explore ways to levy capital gains tax. India also called for strong anti-abuse measures including the incorporation of a ‘limitation of benefit’ clause by ensuring a minimum quantum of local investments in Mauritius (as is the case in Singapore). The India-Singapore DTAA has a limitation of benefit clause which stipulates that only those firms that spend a minimum of USD 200,000 in Singapore can avail themselves of the benefits the treaty offers.

In 2013, the India-Mauritius DTAA came under scrutiny when British multinational Vodafone Group Plc paid USD 5 billion for a stake in the communications divisions of the Indian conglomerate, the Essar group. On 20 January 2012, the Supreme Court passed a judgment in an unprecedented tax dispute between Vodafone and India’s Income Tax Department and exempted the multinational telecommunications conglomerate from paying close to USD 2 billion in tax with regard to the 2007 acquisition of Hutchison Essar’s telecom assets in India “through the transfer of a solitary share in a Cayman Islands company”. This was stated in the May 2012 white paper on ‘Black Money’ prepared by the Ministry of Finance cited earlier. A bench of the apex court headed by the then Chief Justice of India S H Kapadia declared: “The government has no jurisdiction over Vodafone’s purchase of mobile assets in India as the transaction took place in Cayman Islands.”

Questions were raised as to whether it was fair that multinational companies with major market operations in India could set up headquarters in Mauritius and buy and sell these entities at liberty without paying a paisa to the Indian government by way of taxes. Former Finance Minister (and current president of India) Pranab Mukherjee sought to ensure that Vodafone paid capital gains tax by amending the Income Tax Act with retrospective effect from 1962 (when the law was enacted). This decision was not just resented greatly by Vodafone, but also by large sections of Indian industry who argued that the government’s retrospective amendment had imparted considerable uncertainty and arbitrariness to the country’s business environment. Current Finance Minister Jaitley too has repeatedly endorsed this view.

Government officials and bankers in Mauritius vociferously claim that they comply with internationally accepted rules and standards for financial transactions and follow robust and stringent ‘know your customer’ norms for banks. In Mauritius, it is argued that the Indian government is responsible for checking the generation of black money.

According to K C Li Kwong Wing, director of Mauritius International Trust Company Limited and a Member of the National Assembly of the island nation:

Mauritius has always been a very clean and strictly regulated jurisdiction. We have always been in the white list of OECD and we have always complied with the best international practice in terms of compliance, in terms of due diligence. We don’t want to spoil our credentials just because of one treaty. Mauritius has always tried to meet… [the] requirements of [the] Indian government with regard to disclosure of information. We have a lot of memorandum signed between SEBI and the Mauritian Stock Exchange Commission. We have agreements signed between the revenue authorities of India and the revenue authority of Mauritius. A high ranking tax official from India sits in the revenue authority office in Mauritius. We allow Indian auditors to audit all these companies that invest in India. So we are bound by lot of protocols whereby any India authority is allowed to seek whatever information that they would want to look into to ascertain whether there has been any illegal money, black money or whatever money that has been channeled from India to Mauritius and back again.

Nikhil Treebhoohun, the CEO of Global Finance, a Mauritius-based not-for-profit trust that represents the interests of the international financial services industry of Mauritius, claimed that Mauritius is not a tax haven and pointed out that the island country is not on the OECD list of such countries. “We have never been on that list. Delaware (a state in the US) is. In fact Bloomberg had (listed) the five top tax havens in the world and it was Switzerland, Luxembourg, Hong Kong, Singapore and Delaware, US,” he said.

His colleague Rubina Jhuboo, senior associate at Global Finance, concurs, saying that it is not as easy as it seems to route money through the country because of its strict checks: “There are a number of requirements and conditions to be considered as a tax resident in Mauritius. For example you have to have two resident directors in Mauritius, you have to have all your board meetings held or chaired from Mauritius, you have to have a bank account with an offshore bank in Mauritius and all your transactions routed through that bank account. So these are all the procedures that have been put in place for us to make sure that it’s really clean business which is coming in and going out from Mauritius.”

Clairette Ah-Hen, chief executive of the Financial Services Commission of Mauritius, a government authority, argues: “We do have an exchange of information with the Indian authorities. By using Mauritius (for investment) you are ensuring that the authorities in India know about it and, of course, then you leave it to the Indian authorities to take the necessary measures.”

After amending its ‘guide to global business’ in 2013, the Financial Services Commission of Mauritius, the country’s financial services regulator, took a stricter approach to determining the extent to which management and control of a company can legitimately be said be functioning from Mauritius. In order to procure a tax residency certificate (TRC) and thereby enjoy the benefits of the India-Mauritius DTAA, companies were compelled to comply with these ‘economic substance’ norms.

Mauritius does not want the routing of funds to India to be completely choked given the hue and cry about the laundering of black money

The minimum expenditure and asset requirements for these firms were also listed by the Commission, and stipulated that ‘global’ entities must meet at least one of the following criteria: assets of at least USD 100,000 in Mauritius; shares listed in an exchange licensed by the local regulator; and a yearly expenditure on the lines of a similar company controlled and managed from or having an office in Mauritius. Regarding control and management of the business, at least two qualified directors must be resident in Mauritius, as should the company’s principal bank account.

According to the new rules, if a company is licensed as a collective investment scheme, closed-end fund or external pension scheme, it must be administered from Mauritius, and directors must provide adequate time to the affairs of each board and be seen to be involved in the company’s management. In order to be granted a renewal; of their TRC (or alternately, a fresh TRC), these requirements must be met by 1 January 2015.

It is clear that Mauritius does not want the routing of funds to India to be completely choked given the hue and cry about the laundering of black money. Many believe that the rich and the powerful in both countries are complicit in wanting to maintain the status quo, despite increased rhetoric to the contrary.

Rhetoric and reality

In their 2014 election campaign, many BJP leaders, including Modi, had claimed that if they were elected they would bring back enough black money to distribute a sum of INR 1.5 million (USD 24,200) to every Indian. Some of Prime Minister Modi’s supporters, like Home Minister Rajnath Singh and spiritual leader Baba Ramdev, even claimed that the money would be brought back within 100 days of the new government coming to power. Having repeatedly asserted that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was deliberately not revealing the names of those with foreign bank accounts because it was trying to protect them, for the BJP, the shoe is now on the other foot. And it is pinching.

On orders from the Supreme Court, the government instituted a Special Investigation Team (SIT) soon after being sworn in on 26 May. The SIT is headed by a former judge of the court Justice M B Shah and comprises another retired judge of the Supreme court Justice Arijit Pasayat. The team, which would work under the supervision of the court to find the unaccounted for money of Indians in foreign banks, is being assisted by top government officials including the revenue secretary, directors of the CBI, the Intelligence Bureau, Research and Analysis Wing and the Enforcement Directorate, the chairman of the Central Board of Direct Taxes and a deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI).

Finance Minister Jaitley told journalists that a delegation of government officials led by Revenue Secretary Shaktikanta Das had visited Switzerland and come back with ‘positive feedback’ that Geneva would cooperate with India in identifying holders of illegal funds, but that the Indian government would have to first provide evidence ‘independent’ of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) list which the “Swiss government considers as stolen data”. The finance minister now contended that the names of account holders could be made public only in accordance with the “due process of law”, which he said had been “constrained by the DTAA which was entered into between India and Germany when the Congress party was in power on June 19 1995.” He also stated on 21 October that disclosure of the names in the list would embarrass his political opponents in the Congress.

[So far, the names of only a few Indians holding accounts in foreign banks have been made public by the government and some of these individuals have claimed that they have done nothing illegal. After all, non-resident Indians can hold accounts in foreign banks without the consent of the government and so can resident Indians after obtaining permission from the RBI.]

The government’s affidavits before the Supreme Court and recent statements by Prime Minister Modi and Finance Minister Jaitley clearly reveal that the government has no idea how much illegal money Indians have in foreign bank accounts. In fact, in a radio broadcast on 2 November, Modi acknowledged that the exact amount of black money stashed abroad by Indians was not really known. “Till date, no one knows, not me, not the government, not you, not the earlier governments, as to how much money is actually stashed. Everyone quotes a different figure in their own ways. However, I do not want to get entangled in the numbers, my commitment is whatever is the amount – two rupees, five rupees, one crore or more – that money which belongs to the poor, should be brought back. And I assure you that there will be no shortcomings in the efforts that I make,” the prime minister said.

In late October 2014, the government had come under fire from judges of the Supreme Court for failing to furnish the so-called HSBC list of 628 names, addresses and bank account details of Indian individuals, firms and trusts holding accounts in the Geneva branch of HSBC’s Swiss subsidiary. This list of 628 names is part of a longer list of some 130,000 suspected tax evaders with accounts in HSBC Private Bank, Geneva, that had been ‘stolen’ in 2006 by computer systems engineer Herve Falciani (described by some as a whistleblower) and subsequently ‘leaked’ to representatives of governments of different countries in Europe.

 The HSBC list that had been given to India by the government of France in 2011 is not the only one of its kind. Another list of names of 50 Indians with accounts in LGT Bank in Liechtenstein, a tax haven in Europe, had been handed over to the Ministry of Finance by the German government in 2009. When the BJP was India’s largest opposition party for a decade between May 2004 and May 2014, its leaders – notably former Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani – had frequently attacked the previous UPA coalition government, led by the Congress party, for not doing enough to bring black money back to the country.

The problem simply is that not all the well-heeled who come to Mauritius with their lawyers and accountants are all that clean or well-meaning in their intentions

On 22 November, India’s Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told journalists that his government was having a relook at bilateral tax treaties with various countries that are acting as a ‘hindrance’ to obtaining information about black money that Indians had hoarded abroad. His statement came after weeks of criticism against the new BJP government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

After returning from the G20 summit meeting in Australia, Modi wrote in a blog: “India placed the issue of existence and repatriation of black money at the forefront of the world community… because this is an issue that does not selectively affect one nation… The menace of black money has the potential to destabilize world peace and harmony… Black money also brings with it terrorism, money laundering and narcotics trade.”

Earlier, the BJP had criticised the UPA government for failing to make public the list of account holders in Liechtenstein’s LGT Bank, but now the Modi government has conceded that, like the previous government, they can not disclose the names due to confidentiality clauses in India’s DTAA with Germany. This position is identical to the one taken by successive finance ministers in the UPA government – that the names of Indians holding accounts in foreign banks can be disclosed only after criminal prosecution proceedings have been initiated in courts. This indeed is the crux of the issue: the secrecy clause and the disclosure requirements under DTAAs.

According to Prashant Bhushan, a lawyer, activist and one of the founding members of the Aam Aadmi Party which was born out of an anti-corruption movement in India:

All these companies which are coming through the Mauritius route are managed either from the US or North America or Europe or any other country. But they are coming through post-box companies registered in Mauritius under the Mauritius Offshore Business Activities Act. Since under this act any such company cannot and is not allowed to do business in Mauritius, none of these companies can add anything to the economic value of Mauritius. So this argument being given by the Mauritius government that if this route is stopped then Mauritius’ economy will suffer is a totally bogus argument. What it shows is that officials in Mauritius are being bribed by these companies to allow Mauritius to be used as a route for routing investments into India so that they can escape taxation in India. It’s plain and simple as that.

The problem simply is that not all the well-heeled who come to Mauritius with their lawyers and accountants are all that clean or well-meaning in their intentions. Nor for that matter, are their business associates and political mentors in the world’s ‘largest’ democracy, some of whom have over the years ensured that the accumulated hoard of black money in India is more than half of the country’s current annual GDP.

As stated, India has double taxation avoidance agreements with nearly ninety countries and the ones with Cyprus and Singapore are quite similar to the India-Mauritius DTAA. Still, in view of the country’s close political and defence links with Mauritius – which is situated south of the American naval base in Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean – almost everybody in this ‘treasure island’ hopes that it will remain a favourite destination not only for tourists who wish to soak in the sun along the sea while savouring shrimps, but also for corporate captains from across the world who want to invest in India and Africa.

India could assist the Mauritian economy in different ways, instead of allowing its jurisdiction to be abused by tax evaders and white-collar criminals. Given the huge financial stakes involved, however, it seems unlikely that the India-Mauritius DTAA will be substantially altered. Meanwhile, functionaries in the Indian government will continue to wax eloquent about the need to curb the flow of laundered money into the country.
~ Paranjoy Guha Thakurta is an independent journalist, educator and documentary filmmaker. He produced and directed ‘A Thin Dividing Line’, a 2013 documentary film that examines the workings of the double taxation avoidance agreement between India and Mauritius.  Jyotirmoy Chaudhuri is an independent researcher and editor.

One Response to “Treasure Island”

  1. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Jyotirmoy Chaudhuri, it is unfortunate that your long diatribe is complete with half truths and wrong information otherwise I could have enjoyed reading you. I invite you to attempt to open a company in Mauritius. Your eyes will open wide at the extent of due diligence that will be required of you and you will witness the time taken to obtain a license. I hope that you know what types of company get benefit under the tax treaties!! In case your researcher colleague did not inform you, the identity of all immediate and ultimate beneficial owners are always available and provided to the regulator and available on request by India. In such case, how do you justify your comment about anonymous Indian routing money into India?

    You have the misconception that only Indians or NRIs invest in India through Mauritius. Majority of investors are institutional investors. You need to stop believing that Indian and NRIs are the navel of the world!

    Treaty shopping is the use of treaties that gives the most benefits to an investor. Don’t you go shopping for best price , benefits and services? If you do then according to your logic you are committing a crime! If India wants to ban treaty shopping, India knows what to do, not so? I fail though to understand why Indian like you cannot understand that your country needs FDI and if it’s coming through Mauritius, what the big deal? Yes, if the money coming through Mauritius is bad, I grant you your worry. However why do you beleive that FII or FDI money through Mauritius is bad by definition? India is an attractive destination for investment and the world is investing in and they get more comfort doing so through Mauritius than having to face the administrative and legal hassles in India…so why should everything necessaily be painted black?

    No tangible proof of wrong doing is available in your hands, isn’t it or is there? If so, present it and if not hold your peace!

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