The banks are inaccessible for exchanging currency and ATMs are by and large not operative.
Would you opt to temporarily freeze 85 per cent of your bodily functions merely in the hope that you will awake refreshed? Not likely, given the risks and the meagre reward. Shockingly, the Government of India chose to do just that on November 8, by de-legalising notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000, which comprise 85 per cent of the Indian currency in circulation.
If the government’s actual objective was to destroy black money, think again. A widely dispersed “new black money” machine has already mushroomed, exchanging the frozen Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes into new legal tender at a cost of between 20 to 40 per cent of their face value. Many people prefer this route rather than declare their hoarded stocks and lose 33 per cent to tax if the amount is the current year’s income, or 100 per cent as tax and penalty if it is undeclared income from previous years.
But not all sellers are owners of undeclared wealth. Many are ordinary people who got caught short on cash and are desperate to buy things they need — medicines, food or pay for transport to get home. The banks are inaccessible for exchanging currency and ATMs are by and large not operative. This mess will take at least till the end of the year to be straightened out.
In the meantime, scores of small establishments and workers will accumulate debts to pay daily expenses while the economy accumulates the potential value lost in this period. The loss of individual credibility, savings and self-respect is far more permanent and difficult to tabulate.
Who would oppose hunkering down systematically on black money? Prime Minister Narendra Modi has targeted election financing and corruption as the root of the black economy. But we are a long way from doing anything substantive. Even the accounts of political parties are not yet open to public scrutiny under the Right to Information Act. Without flushing out the pipes, just flailing about at the symptoms cannot drain the swamp of black money.
The declared objective is noble. But did we choose the optimum implementation mechanism? What have we achieved by the secrecy; the haste and the resulting action without adequate preparation? Why not, instead, have given adequate notice of the government’s intention to crack down, specifying a future date? The efficacy of the step would not have been diluted. If anything, it would have been enhanced. Brandishing a big stick is better than using it.
A notice period would have allowed better logistics to be in place — sufficient new notes; working ATMs and mobile exchange units for the unbanked. Ordinary people could have been educated and prepared for accessing the new currency. There was nothing to stop the tax authorities and the police from clamping down, during the notice period, on the activities of potential black money aggregators to dissuade leakages — just as they are doing today.
But leakages are inevitable in any currency exchange programme. Around 53 per cent of our 400 million bank accounts are dormant. Many may be multiple or “benami” accounts of the same person. These accounts are viable vehicles to launder black money by paying the nominal holder of the account a small fee.
The government says it will not scrutinise deposits up to Rs 2.5 lakhs in each account. But even an average deposit of Rs 40,000 in each of the 200 million dormant accounts can convert Rs 8 trillion of black money in old notes into temporarily white money, in new notes. Other avenues are for small businesses to deposit their old notes as an advance in the accounts of their suppliers. Employers can similarly deposit advance salaries in the accounts of their employees.
Thirty per cent of the Rs 14.5 trillion currency in the high denomination notes is held legitimately in banks and other government agencies as working capital. Another 30 per cent could be the legitimate savings in cash of around 170 million households, after excluding the poor households, and the cash working capital of the 10 million registered businesses in India.
This leaves 40 per cent, or Rs 6 trillion, as the potentially unaccounted wealth held as cash. But don’t hold your breath — it would be very surprising if the amount extinguished is more than just 15 per cent or Rs 1 trillion. After all, the government’s tax amnesty scheme which closed in September 2016 required a sacrifice of 45 per cent of the amount as tax and penalty. It netted just Rs 0.65 trillion in undeclared money. In the late 1970s, when gold was smuggled into India because legal import was prohibited, a small proportion was regularly and ritually “caught” and confiscated by the customs authorities — a “nazarana” for retaining the “izzat” of the “sarkar”.
Much the same may happen now. Around Rs 1 trillion may fail to be deposited in the banks, enabling the government to declare victory, while individual hoarders of black money take a haircut. If the government can find a non-inflationary way of monetising this reduction in the liability side of the balance sheet of the Reserve Bank, it will be a double victory. It could use this extra liquidity in FY 2017-18 to boost the economy, which would still be reeling from the internal shock and disruption.
Recapitalising public sector banks and waiving the debt burden of state governments can give decent economic returns if it kickstarts investment in projects or if it generates the necessary political capital to implement GST on schedule. Using some of this largesse to reduce the tax rate for low and middle income earners in FY 2017-18, particularly for senior citizens, may compensate them for the pain unnecessarily inflicted on them. Some significant salve is necessary to restore the credibility of the government as an efficient protector of the aam aadmi. The economic disruption, loss of income and possibly even the loss of jobs from a demand constrained economy will worsen the well-being of ordinary citizens. It would be unwise to sacrifice stability and sustained growth at the altar of high risk, quick payback, adventurist options. Why fix something which is not broken?