Black Money

Five reasons why the Indian Express Swiss account story is incredibly important

By revealing the names of businessmen and politicians, the investigation could help reshape law and policy.

When the Indian Express tweeted on Sunday that it was going to break “the biggest news of the year,” lots of people sat up and took notice. The last time the paper did this, it published an article claiming that the government-army relationship was so bad that the word “coup” wasn’t far away. That story dominated headlines for days and provoked heated debates for much longer. So when the Express finally came out on Monday morning, revealing a list of Indian Swiss bank account holders as part of a global investigation into tax dodgers, it didn’t quite seem to live up to the billing.

Forget the biggest news story of the year, it didn’t even appear to be the biggest story of the day, with TV news channels putting the political crisis in Bihar at the top of their bulletins instead of this. “Old news/nothing new in it/who didn’t know this already?” was the primary reaction followed by comments about there being little political fallout. Even adjusting for the natural journalistic tendency to undercut a competitor's work, reaction was still muted.

It’s true, there might not be anything terribly new in the Express’ story (and the paper might actually have done it a disservice by attempting to hype it up). But it still is incredibly important.

Here’s why:

1) It exposes an elite Jan Dhan Yojana
The “nothing new” response comes not just from people in the know, especially those privy to the Black Money account list that has been floating around Delhi, but also ordinary non-Lutyens’ folk who simply presume that the rich must be hiding their money away somewhere. It’s not news that the rich, privileged and famous put their money into Swiss banks, potentially through illegal means.

But like everything else, this is something that’s always talked about, but never made official. We all might “know” that the rich are doing this, but for it to become official it has to be put on paper: newsprint first, court documents later.

Think of it as a version of the Jan Dhan Yojana. That programme attempts to bring people into the financial system by getting them to open documented accounts. This effort does much the same, except instead of dealing with people who were accidentally out of the financial system, it attempts to repatriate those who were intentionally hiding from it.

2) It names the Ambanis
A quick corollary to that involves the names that have actually made it to the paper. Specifically, Ambani. Both Mukesh and Anil Ambani, among India’s most wealthy industrialists, have been named in the reports along with a large number of other businessmen. Again, this might not seem like something new: Mukesh Ambani’s wealth is so infamous that hilarious parody songs are made about it and there’s nothing hush-hush about it.

Yet the Ambanis have also been among the most difficult to pin down on paper. Just three years ago HSBC apologised to Mukesh Ambani for “embroiling” him in the black money controversy, saying he didn’t have any account in their private banking unit. This may yet be true, since the Indian Express details date back to 2007 and even that might not be illegal, undeclared money. Yet the simple act of naming the Ambanis is a noteworthy move, considering their propensity to sue anyone attempting to question their version of events.

3) The nation must know
But they’re private players, and tax avoidance is a legal maneuver for businesses, right? Nothing wrong with it, it is often said with the addition that it is in fact a way of encouraging more business, which could lead to growth and a better economy.

Here’s the problem with that. First, the rich are not entirely self-made. The Ambanis, like hundreds of other businessmen in India, benefit from incentives as varied as government-acquired land and tax breaks. While those might be legal as it stands, the law is meant to benefit the country and the taxpayer, so the way it is being used remains relevant. If a legal provision aimed at making business more comfortable ends up failing to generate much growth, the taxpayer has a right to know and demand changes in the law if necessary.

Second, this is not a conversation limited to India. Around the world, people are not just questioning tax evasion, which is illegal, but also tax avoidance, because simply insisting that something is lawful doesn’t make it right. This is especially true because large financial companies can innovate and game the system faster than laws can be changed.

As the Guardian points out, in its piece on why it chose to report on the HSBC leaks,
“Not all HSBC’s Swiss private bank customers are public figures and many are not dishonest... The Guardian is not naming such individuals. However, others emerge, according to the files, as would-be – though legal – tax avoiders of one kind or another, who would have deprived the UK and other countries of revenue to provide public services… the public should be entitled to know what has been going on in Switzerland. But the full range of behaviour also deserves to be made clear.

4) It isn't all just about politics
The news is not going to have immediate political fallout. Sure some will bring up the politically connected names on the HSBC list, others will remind the prime minister of a campaign promise to bring back crores of black money. But that might say more about the current affairs discourse in India, which has become addicted to purely political stories, with little care for policy. The Indian Express story might not generate much in the way of an immediate political controversy, but it makes an important point about the country’s taxation policy and the way we treat the wealth, issues that must not be missed simply because it isn’t a stick to beat Modi’s government with.

5) It's a start-to-finish story
The Indian media have a notoriously fickle attention span. For instance, the 2G spectrum scandal might have been the beginning of the end for the previous government, but how many people are aware of what has happened to the alleged culprits in the matter? What is going on with the coal scam? Or the AgustaWestland contracts? Or the death sentences of the Delhi gangrape-murder convicts?

The media has a tendency to focus on the dramatic news-break, but not the mundane follow-up. The Indian Express story, thanks to the work of International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, falls in the category of being a hugely important follow-up instead of a newsbreak. Only consistent reportage and focus on these matters, beyond the newsbreak, will ensure that such interventions actually lead to significant action.

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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.