“The CBDT will continue to have the power of phone tapping subject to certain conditions,” an official said.
However, it is not immediately clear the conditions the CBDT will have to fulfil before tapping telephones of any individual.
The move comes after a Committee of Secretaries, headed by Cabinet Secretary K M Chandrasekhar, had recommended that the CBDT be taken off the list of agencies which can file phone-tapping requests as tax evasion cases neither have criminal liability nor any national security issue as these were only civil matters.
The panel recommended either removal of the CBDT from the list of authorised agencies in respect of telephone interception as the income tax laws fall within civil jurisdiction and do not always impinge on the public safety or to specify stipulations regarding the extent of surveillance allowed to the agency, including the level at which requests are to be made for authorisation by the Home Secretary.
The law does not permit use of telephone tapping and monitoring of conversations to merely detect tax evasion as there were specific laws and rules that contain provisions for detection of unaccounted wealth and evasion of taxes.
Interception of telephones without ‘public emergency’ or ‘public safety’ being at stake was also not in accordance with the law as exhaustively interpreted by the Supreme Court .
Interestingly, following reports that the issue of stripping power off CBDT to tap telephones was nothing but a ‘power struggle’ between Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee (under whom the CBDT comes) and Home Minister P Chidambaram, the government last month issued a clarification that the recommendation for removing CBDT from the list of authorised agencies in respect of telephone tapping should not be seen in terms of conflicts between individuals or interest groups.
In the corporate lobbyist Radia case, the income tax department was allowed to tap her phone on the basis of a November 2007 letter received by the Finance Ministry alleging her of building a business empire worth Rs 300 crore in a short span of nine years.
In the wake of controversies over the Radia tapes, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had directed the Cabinet Secretary to look into the rules to avoid their misuse.