New Delhi: The Lok Sabha on Thursday passed the Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill, 2018, which seeks to bring back white collar criminals, who have fled the country, to face trial in India.
The government has been facing severe criticism from opposition parties for its failure to prevent economic fugitives from fleeing the country.
When the bill becomes law, it will empower the centre to seize both local and overseas assets of alleged offenders, such as Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi, who chose not to return to India to face the law even after arrest warrants were issued.
It seeks to target fugitives for offences exceeding ₹ 100 crore. The bill will extend not only to loan defaulters and fraudsters, but also to individuals who violate laws governing taxes, black money, benami properties and financial corruption.
According to the provisions of the bill, all individuals attempting to elude the Indian legal process from the date of the enactment of the law will be covered. The confiscation of property will not be limited to those acquired through the proceeds or profits of the crime.
The bill also provides for confiscation of benami properties. The Enforcement Directorate (ED) will be the apex agency to implement the law. The government has also inserted a clause to protect itself and officers from any legal action.
However, most opposition parties criticized the ₹ 100 crore threshold of the economic offenders bill, saying it would allow many other offenders to go scot-free.
The opposition parties also criticized the government’s decision to bring an ordinance to enact the law, besides opposing the provision that does not allow an offender to pursue civil cases in India.
Defending the decision to bring an ordinance, finance minister Piyush Goyal said it was important in order to demonstrate the government’s commitment to act swiftly against such fugitives. He also backed the ₹ 100 crore threshold, saying the intention was to tackle big offenders with huge properties first.
“The intention of the government is to ensure faster and speedy tackling of cases involving big offenders," he said, adding that other cases were already being tackled in courts under existing legislation.
The bill was initially envisaged in budget 2017 to bring to task wilful defaulters such as liquor baron Vijay Mallya. However, the urgency increased after the ₹ 14,356 crore scam at state-owned Punjab National Bank, allegedly perpetrated by jewellers Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi.
Given that the bill was not passed when it was first introduced in the budget session of Parliament, the government decided to bring an ordinance till a law is enacted.
Armed with the ordinance, the ED has already initiated the process to tag Mallya, Modi and Choksi as fugitives.
Despite several attempts seeking comments, Mallya’s spokesperson and Modi’s and Choksi’s lawyers did not comment till press time.
During the debate in the Lower House on Thursda, Congress lawmaker Shashi Tharoor questioned the rationale of bringing a new law and the prescribed ₹ 100 crore-threshold.
“Present laws allow confiscation of property of fugitives with a more stringent time-frame," Tharoor said, adding that the threshold should be removed.
The Congress MP also opposed the provision of not allowing the offenders to pursue civil cases in India and pointed out that the bill will not allow the fugitives to even pursue a property dispute or divorce case.