Chidambaram, Rajan may face music for easing gold import norms

Confirming Financial Chronicle’s campaign on the illicit and malafide use of the dubious 20:80 gold scheme which benefited a handful of start and premier trading houses even as there was a vacuum in government formation -- May 21, 2014 -- the Centre on Monday through a commerce ministry statement announced that none involved would be spared. The Centre said it will take action against the persons, hinting at RBI governor Raghuram Rajan and finance minister P Chidambaram at the time who relaxed gold import norms for private trading houses during the dying days of the UPA regime which resulted in a windfall of Rs 4,500 crore to 13 such entities in just six months.

India Bullion and Jewellers Association president and trader Mohit Kamboj, who spoke to FC, had played whistle blower by writing innumerable letters to people in authority both in UPA and then NDA to finally secure the cancellation of the scheme in late November 2014.

With Parliament paralysed over the PNB/Modi/Choksi swindle and the treasury benches in the line of an opposition fusillade, the government counter punched. The ruling party has accused Chidambaram of aiding jewellers Mehul Choksi and Nirav Modi – centrifuge in the country's biggest bank fiddle – through an 80:20 gold import scheme. Without naming any of the jewellers who may have benefited from the scheme, the government said in a statement that it had taken the “bold” step to scrap the scheme within months of coming to power to end all discrimination in the favour of private gold importers. It said the scheme had increased the shipments of gold into the country and put pressure on current account deficit in 2012-13.
This resulted in placing of restrictions on imports including by way of higher customs duty. As FC has consistently been pointing out through its exposes, “the 13 premier trading houses (PTH) and star trading houses (STH) were also allowed to import gold under 20:80 scheme,” the statement said, referring to Chidambaram’s decision to allow even private traders to import under the scheme. These were in July/August 2013 modified into 20:30 scheme wherein only banks and PSUs like MMTC and STC were allowed to import gold if only a fifth of it is exported. “The then finance minister approved the modified scheme on May 13, 2014, even though the model code of conduct was in place since March 5, 2014 with the announcement of the Lok Sabha polls, and the counting was due on May 16, 2014,” said a statement by the commerce ministry.

It said there was a shortage of gold for domestic use and a premium of between $100 and $150 per ounce (about Rs 2 lakh per kg) was being charged. Preferential access was given to cronies who made a fast buck by hoarding the gold and profiteering. “Allowing private companies like PTHs and STHs to import gold provided these agencies an opportunity of windfall gain, as the benefit of the high premium on gold could now be availed of by these agencies,” the government statement added. The statement referred to a CAG report (again highlighted by FC) that put gold imported by 13 trading houses during June 2014 to November 2014 at 282.77 tones, “which means a windfall gain of about Rs 4,500 crore to these agencies during this period, assuming a premium of Rs 2 lakh per kg and 80 per cent of imported gold supplied to domestic market earning the premium.” It further said: “Even the export obligations were being met through export of plain jewellery, viz., bangles and chains, which were re-melted in offshore locations through front/ shell companies for the purpose of re-import.” Stating that the increase in gold import had disproportionately benefited the STH/PTHs whose imports shot up by 320 per cent, the government said, “This benefit stemmed from a de facto discrimination in their favour because of expanded 20:30 scheme privileged these STHs/PTHs.” The government will definitely examine the circumstances “as to why private parties PTHs/STHs were benefitted by being allowed to import gold under 20:80 scheme by the previous government when the government was in transition and will take necessary action against the persons involved.” It went on to state that the advantage to the STHs/PTHs extended in May 2014 was unfair and “the new government took a bold decision of ending the discrimination and liberalising the import and scrapped the 20:80 scheme altogether on November 28, 2014.”

On a written reply given in Parliament on August 13, 2014, the government said the reply to the question on ‘institutionalisation of bullion trade’ was “factual in nature stating various measures taken.” “The 20:80 scheme was one such measure. As can be seen from the reply, no view on the merit of the scheme or otherwise has been indicated. The allegation of justification for the scheme or allowing PTHs/STHs are completely erroneous. The review of the scheme by the government was undergoing and a decision to abolish it was taken in November 2014,” it said.