India’s cash recall: A note of caution

Last weekend at the local Citibank branch (on Delhi’s outskirts) it took me six hours to get my mother’s cheque encashed. Ever since the Rs500 and Rs1,000 denomination currency was demonetised on November 9, queues at banks and ATMs have lengthening rather than shortening.

I thought that Saturday, when currency exchange was restricted to senior citizens, would be lighter but instead found standing on the other side of the building on whose ground floor sits the bank. I went at 9am and by 1pm I was inside the door; by a bit after 3pm I received twelve Rs 2,000 notes that are useless because of the shortage of change. Every half hour, the queue witnessed fierce arguments with the executives manning the door. An hour after I got inside there was a scuffle outside, and the guards locked us in; a teller stood up and announced, “All customers to sit silently”.

This was still better than my wife’s experience at the Indian Bank in south Delhi. It’s wedding season and she needed to go to the locker to retrieve ornaments. The branch is in a slum across the road from Delhi’s swankiest malls, on the first floor of a modest commercial complex, and access is by a narrow stairwell that is blocked by a now-permanent queue of working-class men. Though my wife was not going for a cash transaction, they would not let her pass (the guard nervously told her to take permission from the crowd). She gave up and returned home.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that this demonetisation – in which Rs14trillion was removed from circulation, out of about Rs17trillion, or 84 per cent – was to clean the system (or “drain the swamp”) of black money, fake currency, and terrorism-financing. The income tax department’s own data analysis shows that only six per cent of black money is cash. Experts say the rest is in real estate, gold, stocks and foreign banks. Counterfeiting, according to a parliamentary presentation in 2012, was estimated around Rs 25billion. Terrorism-funding, according to intelligence sources, are Rs1.5-2billion (neighbouring countries spend more of their own currency on training camps, arms, food and lodging, etc). Also, captured or killed terrorists are always reported to be carrying Rs300,000-500,000 of fake currency. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs report, in 2015 108 terrorists were neutralised and two caught alive. So the reasons that Modi gave amount to just a drop in a vast ocean.

And even if the black stock is cleaned, the black flow has not been stopped. A friend bought a house and half had to be paid in cash. He asked how the cash would disposed of: the broker said that it would be shown as agricultural income, which is not taxed. Obviously, demonetisation should have taken place along with tax reform – not just in the Goods and Services Tax (GST), but in undocumented areas of the Indian economy. But no government will ever dare tax farmers. So all that has got hit is the recovery of the real estate market, depressed since 2010; experts hoped that it would recover a year after the implementation of GST (expected in April 2017). That expectation has been pushed back another year, close to the 2019 general election.

If banking has become torture for urbanites, imagine what it must be like in the countryside. According to a December 2015 Reserve Bank of India (RBI) report, there are an average of 12,863 customers per bank branch in rural and semi-urban India, while there are only 5,351 customers in urban branches. According to former finance minister P Chidambaram, there are a total 1,34,000 bank branches all over India. Modi’s middle-class supporters have been calling for a few days of individual pain for long-term collective gain.

It now looks like a few months of pain; and in the long-run, we are all dead. One can’t fault Modi for his ideas – after all, it’s his government, his prerogative. But this disatrous implementation is somebody’s fault. RBI Governor Urijit Patel has not given anyone much confidence, least of all Modi, with having incorrectly assessed the logistical difficulty of currency replacement. Finance minister Arun Jaitley did not give his boss the IT’s own data to make a proper decision, but he can’t be blamed too much because demonetisation has long been a bee in the right-wing bonnet. Perhaps the implementation mishap was because of the tight circle of secrecy, which probably included party chief Amit Shah but not Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian, as Chidambaram has alleged.

It is foolhardy to predict how demonetisation will play out. The best barometer will the Uttar Pradesh assembly election, which is scheduled to be held by April-May. Then we’ll know if the dubious gain was worth the protracted pain.

The author is a senior journalist and author based in Delhi

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