Private lockers mushroomed in popularity promising convenience and better service at a time when bank lockers were hard to come by. But in recent times, they seem to be promising one more thing: Easy tax evasion.
Last Friday, the investigation wing of the Income Tax department raided premises of a private vault facility in Delhi and seized items worth over Rs 23 crore in gold jewellery, biscuits, precious stones and cash from multiple lockers.
The raided premises of U&I Vaults Limited, which was little more than a basement in the capital's posh South Extension area, contained over 100 lockers. This is the third time in a fortnight that IT sleuths conducted raids on the vault as part of its anti-black money drive. On January 11, after a two-day search, assets valued at around Rs 20 crore were seized - Rs 16 crore in cash apart from bullion worth Rs 2.35 crore and the rest coming from jewellery and a few other gold items, news agency PTI reported.
The week before that, the Income Tax department had seized gold jewellery, bullion and cash valued at Rs 41 crore from the same vault. The total haul, so far, is a whopping Rs 85.2 crore and all of it was reportedly stashed away in about 41 lockers in the facility, each costing over Rs 1.5 lakh annually. Incidentally, U&I Vaults Limited, a subsidiary of the U&I Group, is one of the largest providers of private lockers in Delhi.
Of the total assets seized, Rs 40 crore is reportedly in cash (mostly in Rs 2000 notes) while the rest is bullion, jewellery, diamonds and other precious stones. The assets allegedly belong to some high net worth (HNIs) individuals based in the National Capital Region, including a builder, a gutkha trader and some liquor dealers. Apparently, the improving vigilance on the part of banks and their emphasis on know-your-customer (KYC) norms made private vaults-many even without CCTVs-the preferred choice for people with unaccounted wealth.
Less than three months ago, a team of Income-Tax officials from Delhi had unearthed 40 kg of gold and several diamonds from a private locker belonging to the promoter of Gurgaon-based Jai Bharat Maruti (JBM) Group in addition to Rs 8 crore in cash from his house.
Private lockers or vaults operate like normal bank lockers but are not recognised under the law and hence there is little accountability. A top IT official told the daily that they had gathered intelligence about hundreds of such private locker services in the national capital alone where no KYC guidelines were followed. Such services are also available in other major metro cities. The department is yet to open several other lockers under surveillance in many cities. "The case pertains to black money detected post demonetisation and some others being probed under the new anti-benami law," said a senior official, adding that the lockers were owned by drivers, peons or those who never filed their IT returns.
Black money hoarders are advised to clean up their act fast because the department has now approached the finance ministry, seeking to bring private locker services under a regulatory regime.
With agency inputs