Demonetization of high denomination notes, by Prof. Charan Singh

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced demonetization of high denomination currency keeping in view the manifesto of the party to fight corruption and respecting the sentiments of voters.  Despite the pain which people are facing in the exercise, generally the scheme has been hailed by Indians across the spectrum.  The sentiments are positive and encouraging. In 1946 and 1978, similar demonetization was done in India but the scale at which it is being done now is unprecedented.

First, some facts about the demonetized currencies. The note of Rs. 500 was introduced in October 1987-88 while notes of Rs.1,000 were discontinued in January 1978 and reissued in November 2000. The history of Rs.1,000 note is interesting.  It was first introduced in 1938 under the British rule and then demonetized in January 1946.  Once again it was introduced in 1954 and demonetized in 1978 to be re-introduced in 2000.  The indent of Rs.500 and Rs.1,000 have generally been higher than the supply sharing the preference of the people.  The notes are injected into the economy through 4102 currency chests spread across the country. The total currency in circulation as on end March 31, 2016 is Rs. 16,415 billion of which notes of Rs.1,000 denomination account for 38.6 per cent (Rs.6,326 billion) and Rs.500 account for 47.8 per cent (Rs.7,854 billion).  The number of notes in circulation, in terms of volume, are 903 billion of which Rs.1,000 account for 7 per cent (63 billion) and Rs.500 for 17.4 per cent (157 billion).  The importance of Rs.500 has been increasing over the years, from 4.1 per cent on March 31, 1990 to 47.2 per cent on March 31, 2016.  Similarly, the share of Rs.1,000 note has increased from 1.7 per cent in 2001 to 38 per cent in 2016.

Malaise of Corruption impacts Economic Growth

The malaise of corruption which has been harming the country has various implications for the economy.  Corruption undermines the government’s ability to deliver economic growth and adversely affects a number of variables like macro financial stability, investment, human capital formation and productivity.  It can also lead to distrust of government policy which if becomes pervasive can lead to violence and conflict with social and economic implications.

Prevention of corruption needs strong policy deterrence which requires effective administrate system, and technology based data processing to generate actionable intelligence.  In India, black money is estimated between 10 and 30 per cent of official national income. The Modi government, in the last two years, has initiated various measures to fight corruption like transparency in decision making, enhancing rule of law, deregulation and simplification of rules.

Objective

Demonetization of high currency notes has a two-fold objective – first, choking the funding channels of militancy and terrorism from across the border.   In the last few years large number of counterfeit notes were regularly discovered in states infested with terror activities.  Thus, demonetization will certainly paralyze financing channel of terrorist activities.  The other objective, to fight corruption, is rather complex and needs to be addressed persistently through different ways.

Implications of Demonetization

The economic implications of demonetization are many and yield mixed results.  First, it would inspire confidence of international community that India is serious about its commitment to fight corruption.  This will enhance India’s ranking in ease of doing business as well as in various global indices of corruption.

It is rather difficult to predict the impact of demonetization on the economy.  The immediate pain in terms of non-availability of required currency notes if not corrected soon, may reflect in reduction of output in agriculture because of its timing being close to sowing season and which may spillover to industry and services.  Similarly, in the long run, implications could be uncertain.  On one hand, confidence in efficient management of the economy should lead to positive effect while shock strike at unaccounted economy could lead to shrinkage in production, especially in informal sector including micro, medium and small enterprises.

If the efforts of the government result in unearthing substantial amount of dormant money implying that stock of money would become a flow, then theoretically, prices would go up as more money would be chasing limited amount of goods.  On the other hand, if there are liquidity constraints impacting production because of non-availability of required currency notes, then inflationary pressures will be subdued along with lower production. Similarly, though exchange rate is depreciating in short run because of high demand of US dollars, but medium to long term trend would depend on growth and inflation.

As demonetization was planned beforehand, Government must have factored in repercussions like sluggishness in stock and housing market, and in general, government’s tax revenue in quarters ending December and March. But if the Government is able to garner substantial amount of unaccounted money, it will add to revenue in the Budget. The issue of new notes, would enhance the seignorage of the Reserve Bank of India, leading to higher dividend for the Government.

The severity of demonetization could result in enhancing fear of placing deposits in banks to avoid detection, and people may pursue other alternatives.  Further, people may even be cautious in holding high denomination currency in their homes, which may get diverted to investing in gold, real estate and other activities.  However, mistrust between the government and the private sector may need to be addressed so that currency is held by the public with confidence rather than with uncertainty and fear.

The expected introduction of Goods and Sales Tax (GST) in April 2017 would have led to better observation of accounting standards. Demonetization would hasten the process of such accounting standards because of shift from currency to digital payments and banking.

Greater use of Digital Money?

Would demonetization lead to popularising digital money?  A number of factors need to be taken into consideration. India is a very diverse country in terms of languages and scripts. Also, the country has low level of literacy of about 70 percent, and English literacy of not more than 10 per cent of the population.  Given the fact that all electronic devices have English numerals and all communication on digital banking is also in English, there is natural barrier to completely digitalize Indian economy during immediate period.

India continues to have 30 per cent of population or nearly 40 crore people below poverty line.  These people could also be slow in embracing digital economy.

90 per cent of the Indian population operates in informal sector. Illustratively, the transport sector including taxis, auto /cycle rickshaws, horse carriages and bullock carts   are all on cash payment as also most of local markets/shops/dhabas and similar business outlets, especially in rural areas.  Though, banking penetration has increased in last two years, but change in habit of shifting from cash to digital would take time. In addition, low volume of business in rural shops, shopping sheds, rural make – shift Kiosks may not justify the cost of installing equipment to read and safely secure the data on plastic money.   However, in the medium to long run, advantages of digital economy will certainly prevail because of the ease of doing business and swiftness in settlement of accounts.

Some Suggestions

However, the recent demonetization has only hit the stock of unaccounted wealth kept exclusively in form of currency.  But the flow, to curb regular accumulation of more unaccounted money, also needs to be addressed. That can be done in two ways – First, instituting a mechanism of incentivizing tax compliance and punitive and demonstrative deterrent for those caught while generating black money. Second by extensive financial literacy on harmful impact of unaccounted money – ranging from personal health to national loss. This should become part of school and college curriculum.

It is a unique experiment in the world with no precedence.  To understand the dimension of the problem consider an illustration where 86 per cent of blood in the body has to be changed while the patient is working normally and is not in ICU.  Thus, in tirelessly undertaking this herculean task commercial bankers need to be applauded. The work is still incomplete and expected to last a few more weeks, given that ATM machines have yet to be calibrated.  Therefore, with hind sight, to ease the pressure on branch and considering convenience to customer, commercial bankers can consider organizing kiosks at secure places like schools/colleges/hospitals for exchange of limited quality of notes. Only customers with large requirements, need to go to the branch.

So the whole operation was kept secret as necessitated.  But the last mile turned out to be rather difficult as serpentine queues outside every branch and every ATM of the country were proof of the fact that bank branches were not battle ready.  While the Indian Army was sufficiently trained to do highly advanced surgical operation across the border and still be able to undertake relief operations during Chennai floods, the bankers, though hard working and dedicated, were not able to rise to the battle cry.  A similar thing was noticed earlier when the increase in number of Jan Dhan accounts was accompanied with increase in NPAs, reflecting lack of monitoring and diversion of attention from loan accounts.  A similar rise in NPAs can be anticipated and to address this issue, Government can duly compensate commercial banks for deploying resources and manpower for the success of demonetization.

India is the fastest growing economy of the world with a small Current Account Deficit, sufficient fiscal space, low inflation, and rising foreign exchange reserves. In fact, India with nearly 60 percent of population below 35 years will be unchallenged for next half a century. Hence, despite pain, the country is unified in this rare opportunity, to cleanse the economy from cancer of corruption, on its way to become a superpower.

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