Transparency in systems and Eradication of Corruption is a key focus of the present government. As the first leg of this drive, Prime Minister Modi announced the demonetisation process in the country in November 2016. The second phase of this anti-corruption, anti-black money is going to be an attack on ‘benami property.’ Although the law to tackle this has existed for the past many years, not much was done about it.

In its recent strike against the illegalities in the real estate sector, the government announced the Benami Transactions Prohibitions Amendment Act on November 1, 2016. An amendment to the earlier Act of 1988, this new enactment is known as the ‘Prohibition of Benami Transactions Act, 1988 or specifically, the PBPT Act. The following is what you need to understand this entire process and the terms involve therein:

“Benami.”

The word “benami” implies ‘not in the own name,’ taken from the Hindi word ‘benaam’ meaning ‘without any name.’ In the context of property, it just means ‘property that is not bought in your name.’ The property so bought is called ‘benami property’; the person in whose name the property has been purchased is called the ‘benamdar.’ Real ownership of the asset remains in the name of the individual who has paid the money for the deal. Naturally, the only person who stands to benefit in the process is the one who has paid for the property. He is the one who keeps both the papers of the document as well as a power of attorney (POA) to sell the particular property as and when he deems fit. His decision to sell would depend on the property prices.

Components of ‘Benami Property.’

As per the old Act of 1988, all property that does NOT stick to the criteria mentioned below would be called benami property –

  • Property that is held in the name of your spouse or child and is paid through known and declared sources of income
  • Joint property with a sibling or any other relative and paid with known and reported sources of income
  • Property that someone holds only in a fiduciary capacity – that is, holding an asset in the name of somebody else but not for his benefit. The holding would have been made so more by trust or guardianship.

Under the old Act, therefore, even property that you would buy in the name of your parents could be termed ‘benami.’

The New Amendment Act, 2016

The Amendment introduced in November 2016, adopts a more strict approach to the definition of benami property. It also addresses the aspect of fines and punishment. As per the provisions introduced, the Act has

  1. Revised the definition of benami transactions and added to the already existing one to also include transactions where:
  • the purchase is made in a fictitious name
  • the owner is either not aware of or denies any knowledge of the ownership of the property
  • the person providing the finance for the property can’t be traced

Property transactions that are conducted between family members would not be called benami transaction. ‘Family members’ here mean only those by lineage – father, mother, grandparents and great grandparents or children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren

  1. Stipulated penalty for indulging in benami transactions
  • The penalty that was about one to three years in the earlier Act would now be up to 7. There would also be a strict fine imposed which could go as high as 25% of the market value of the property.
  • Anybody giving false information would end up with imprisonment for up to five years and would also have to pay a fine of 10 percent of the market value of the property.
  1. Set up legal authorities and Appellate Tribunal to deal with these cases.
  • Four authorities will be responsible for investigations and inquiries namely, the Initiating Officer, Approving Authority, Administrator, and Adjudicating Authority.
  • Names of benami property owners would be dug out by the district registrars and the land record departments.
  • The Initiating Officer will issue a notice to the offender. He can hold the property for about 90 days from the notice date after taking permission from the designated Approving authority; at the end of the period, he could just pass an order to extend the holding of the property.
  • In such a scenario, he would then refer the case to the Adjudicating Authority, who would examine all the documents and evidence regarding the matter. It would be up to him to decide whether the property would still be held as benami or not.
  • There would be an Appellate Tribunal formed that would hear any appeal against the orders of the Adjudicating Authority.
  • If any appeal has to be mad against the orders of the Appellate Tribunal, it would be made to the High Court.
  • There will be particular Special Courts also designated to try any offenses related to the new Bill
  1. Redefined the concept of benami property and now included the following –
  • All immovable assets like land, an apartment or house
  • Movable assets like gold, stocks, mutual fund holdings, bank deposits, etc.
  • In case the benami property has been sold it would include the money so earned from the sale too.

This Amendment Act comes as part of a series of moves being made to attain greater professionalism as well as transparency in the Real Estate Sector. It is hoped that ownership title risks would also reduce and benami transactions in the agricultural sector would get reduced. Somewhere in the minds of the government is also the fact that this move would make a lot of lands available for better purposes. The coming months will show how far these attempts of the government will be successful.

The next step Indian government is going to take will be identification of benami properties