The Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill, 2018 was passed by Lok Sabha by a voice vote Thursday without any amendments proposed by the Opposition. The Bill would replace the ordinance on the same subject. Nineteen members — apart from Union Minister Piyush Goel, who is handling additional charge of Finance Ministry in Arun Jaitley’s absence — spoke on the Bill.
The government brought an ordinance in April to allow it to start proceedings to seize assets of fugitives accused of white collar crimes, where value of the offence exceeds Rs 100 crore.
Most Opposition members who raised concerns mentioned that while they supported the Bill, they were not sure if it would stand scrutiny in a court of law due to some of its aspects. Leaders like N K Premachandran of Revolutionary Socialist Party, Shashi Tharoor of Congress and Kalyan Banerjee of TMC were some of the leaders who questioned if the proposed law would really be effective and some mentioned that it was brought for “optics”.
In an apparent attack on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Tharoor said some of the most prominent fugitives have managed to flee the country under the “watch of the very man” who had said he wanted to become the “watchman”. He said 31 people with cases costing Rs 40,000 crore cumulatively have escaped the country since this government came to power. “Is it already too little too late,” he asked.
Tharoor said there are existing laws to tackle the problem, including seizure of a fugitive’s property, under the CrPC. He said, “this Bill gives more time than the CrPC” — the proposed law gives seven weeks, compared to 30 days under Section 82 of the CrPC.
Among other key issues raised by Opposition leaders were a “manifestly arbitrary” threshold of Rs 100 crore as value of the offence for the new law to kick in.
Banerjee asked Goel. “If these powers are there, then why have you not” arrested the fugitives. He said “people want the see the faces” of fugitives like Lalit Modi, Nirav Modi and Vijay Mallya “in the Indian jails”.
Premachandran said “instead of having passed” the Bill in the House earlier, “going the ordinance route is not good for democracy”.
The Opposition MPs also highlighted that the Bill does not allow the accused “fugitives” any civil legal recourse in India, and how this would contravene fundamental right of every Indian to have access to the courts.
From the BJP, Nishikant Dubey and Kirit Somaiya accused the Opposition of “washing out the entire budget session”. At one point, Dubey said CBI is going to name a UPA-era Finance Minister in an upcoming report in Mallya case, to which Opposition leaders asked how he was aware of what CBI will bring out.
Goel said Congress leaders hadn’t allowed the House to function in Budget Session and that’s why they had to bring an ordinance. He said there existed laws for similar provisions, but this new law would make the process faster. Regarding the Rs 100 crore-threshold, he said the government would focus on “big offenders” to avoid clogging tribunals and special courts.