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80:20 gold scheme under scanner over illegal gains during UPA tenure

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The contentious 80:20 gold import scheme is under the scrutiny of investigative agencies over accusation s that a handful of private parties benefited illegally from tweaks to the programme toward the end of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s second term (2009-14).

Investigative agencies have gathered new evidence indicating alleged irregularities, said people with knowledge of the matter. Agencies have exchanged “crucial” information that, in their opinion, needs further investigation to see if the “benefits” that a few entities got were “systemic”, said one of the people cited above.

The agencies are examining whether any public servant “while holding office obtained for any persons any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage without any public interest” as per Section 13 (d) (iii) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, said the person. Among the alleged beneficiaries are fugitive diamond merchants Nirav Modi and his uncle Mehul Choksi.

Top sources indicated that “representations” made by seven companies to UPA-2, seeking to liberalise the gold import scheme, are being perused by the probe agencies BJP and Congress have been battling over the scheme, which was scrapped by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government months after it assumed office in 2014.

Law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had alleged in March that the programme introduced by then finance minister P Chidambaram aided jewellers such as Modi and Choksi, accused of involvement in the $2-billion Punjab National Bank (PNB) fraud.

The scheme was introduced in August 2013 to curb gold imports and rein in the widening fiscal deficit. Up to 80% of gold imported could be sold in the country on condition that 20% was exported. Only banks and state-owned agencies such as MMTC and STC were allowed to import gold for domestic use under the scheme. In May 2014, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) allowed certain premier export houses to import gold subject to some restrictions. These private entities accounted for 40% of total gold imports in April-September 2014.

RBI had relaxed the rules at the behest of the finance ministry after jewellers, authorised dealer banks and trade bodies lobbied for relief. This was done to facilitate gem and jewellery exports, which had decreased due to the curbs. Last month, BJP la wmaker Nishikant Dubey demanded a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) against Chidambaram, former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan and finance ministry officials. Dubey alleged it had been introduced to benefit some business houses, referring to a 2016 Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report that said the scheme caused a loss of Rs 1 lakh crore to the exchequer.

Rajan said in a TV interview that “objective criteria” were followed with the idea of liberalising the gold market in the wake of the 2013 rupee slump.

“The people who did not make money objected against the people who did make money but the people who made money were objecting against others –this kind of thing keeps going on,” Rajan said. “Ultimately this idea was to bring back free trading, that’s what happened and that is a good thing.”

Courtesy: Economic Times/ Image: cherishgold.com

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