Taking a crucial step towards checking black money, the Lok Sabha on Wednesday passed the Benami Transactions Amendment Bill with the new legislation having provisions for confiscating 'benami' (proxy) assets.
During the debate, members favoured stringent measures including capital punishment to counter such transactions, while Communist Party of India-Marxist member Sankar Prasad Dutta said there is need to completely ban benami transactions in the country.
Piloting the bill, which mustered general unanimity in principle as members rising above party affiliations gave it a push, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said the purpose of the bill is to "discourage" this activity.
During the four-hour-long debate, Ravindra Babu of Telugu Desam Party said people who make black money are anti-nationals and should be hanged. Calling for a "comprehensive" law, he said the present bill is well-intended but it should be integrated with other Acts dealing with hawala and drugs.
He was also supported Dutta, who said there is need to completely ban benami transactions and lamented that even political leaders are allegedly involved in them.
Replying to host of queries raised on the bill by members like Sushmita Dev (Congress), Conrad Sangma (National People's Party), Saugata Roy (Trinamool Congress) and Prem Singh Chandumajra (Akali Dal), Jaitley said: "Section 58 of the new bill clearly states that charitable or religious organisation properties can be exempted by the government."
However, answering to clarification sought on the issue by N.K. Premchandran of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, Jaitley said that did not mean any person "fraudulently" launching a religious organisation for routing black money can be exempted.
He said the new law is predominately an "anti-black money measure" and its purpose is to seize benami property and prosecute those indulging in such activities.
In a jovial vein, he told opposition members, especially Premchandran, that "exemption cannot be pretext for tax evasion. If you make any illegal business out of it... if you create a fake religious sect and start keeping benami property, then government won't exempt it, so please don't do that".
Jaitley also defended provisions in the bill that empowers central government to "confiscate" benami properties and not the states, saying this has been done because the prosecutions will essentially be under clauses of a central law.
The offences under this law has been kept as "non-cognizable offence" as essentially this is only a tax law violation, he said, adding: "Because we do not want multiple agencies to come and start harassing people."
"The object is not to harass them; the object is that there must be prosecution if a person has violated this particular law."
Responding to queries of members on why the government has not come out with a new law in place of the 1988 Act, the Finance Minister said such a move would have given "immunity" to persons who acquired benami properties from 1988 to 2016.
While the 1988 Act had nine sections, the amended new law would have 71 sections, Jaitley pointed out, but has other exceptions also like relating to Hindu Undivided Family and trusts owning properties.
The punishment clauses too have been strengthened. While the existing law provides for up to three years of imprisonment or fine or both for benami transactions, the amended legislation would provide for seven years imprisonment and fine.
Jaitley also informed members that the government has accepted the Parliamentary Standing Committee's suggestion to change the words in the Bill from "known sources of income" to "known sources" with a view to further strengthen the provisions as sometimes individuals may get loans or other kind of borrowings for some properties.
Under the new legislation, there is also a provision for filing an appeal against an order within 45 days.
As S.P. Muddahanume Gowda (Congress) said the bill does not provide any protection to the whistle blower in connection with benami property, Jaitley said there is no such provision under this act but a separate law on whistle blowers does ensure protection.
The present Bill as passed by Lok Sabha was brought by the Modi government in 2015 and it was referred to the Standing Committee on Finance. An amendment billwas introduced by the UPA government in 2011 but it lapsed when the term of the previous Lok Sabha ended in 2014.
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