Now that the dust and din have settled on the actual amount of cash returned to the banks on the demonetisation initiative, there are clearly two different camps that have emerged. The government and supporting voices are insistent that the drive has been a success and will have great long term benefits for the economy and country. The dissenters question the move and say that the data now proves beyond any shade of doubt that the move was completely ill advised.
Let us look at this from a fundamental perspective to understand what has really happened, why it has happened and what is the likely fallout. To begin with the objective of demonetisation was to unearth the huge amounts of cash that was being used in an unaccounted manner in our economy. It is important to understand that the proportion of cash in the black or parallel economy is a small percentage, nearly 6 %. The bulk of it is in real estate and other assets. However, this cash keeps working as the lubricant for deals in real estate, film industry and other areas where regulations are weak at best and non existent at worst. Thus, the amount of cash is ever increasing and more importantly untraceable. When the government went for demonetisation, the hope clearly was that some of this unaccounted money will not find it’s way back into the banking system as people will be worried to account for it.
What has happened in reality and why? Well, now we know for certain that the amount of money not returned into the banking system is only 16000 crores. Even though the government had not officially named a figure, it was widely expected to be much higher around 3 lac crores. I think some of the reasons are as follows:-
- A lot of people managed to use the bank accounts of known people to deposit money. For example, I personally know a few who have done this in the accounts of people who worked for them.
- While it was a great initiative to open the Jan Dhan accounts, I wish there was some deposit limits set to them based on the economic condition of the account holder. Many of these accounts were unfortunately used for parking black money with a promise of paying a percentage to the account holder.
- The great Indian ingenuity to circumvent rules was in full display during November and December of 2016. An entire industry sprang up to take your old notes and give back 70-80 % of equivalent new notes. Unfortunately, instead of declaring their money and paying taxes on it, many Indians chose to go by these shady routes.
- In the initial days there was panic and there were even stories of sackful of 1000 Re notes being abandoned etc. However, it soon dawned on people that even if they could not use others accounts or middlemen, it would simply make sense to claim it as current earning and deposit it in their own accounts.
- The above was possible as the follow up from IT authorities were not thought to be very efficient in their follow up. Many CA’s also advised people to deposit their money and figure out how to handle tax notices etc at a later date.
- I know of a Doctor who had 15 lacs of black money and he simply generated current year invoices to show it as current year income. As most people went about this way, the amount of money collected from the amnesty scheme was well below expectation again.
Let us now look at the impact of demonetisation on the economy as a whole. It needs to be understood that the unorganised sector got very badly hit by this move. Cash was the only mode of transaction there and sudden unavailability of it almost shut down entire industries in several parts of the country. Several workers in these industries were suddenly left without jobs and these were the section of people who could not afford to be out of work even for a short while. Yes, over the next two months most of the jobs were back but the short term misery inflicted on these people, cannot and should not be forgotten. The organised sector was more fortunate but here too there was a distinct slow down in business and demand.
Why was this not reflected in the GDP numbers of Jan 2017? Well, for one the timing of the demonetisation was chosen very well. A lot of demand and business got executed in the October period as it was festive season in India. Normally there is a lull in commercial activities post Diwali anyway. The data from the unorganised sector anyway takes a long time to find it’s way into the statistics. So the impression of the 7.9 % growth despite demonetisation was clearly a false one, as latter events were to prove. However, this should really not be seen as a problem as most well informed people did understand that the GDP will suffer by 1-2 % in the short run. I am surprised at the 5.7 % number but had been quite prepared to see something to the tune of 6.5 % for the last quarter.
The other area which has been actively promoted by the Government with the Prime minister himself being the champion is digital transactions. It is true to say that in the initial days there was a spurt in these, mainly due to the fact that cash was simply not available. The aggressive marketing of the payment companies and the Indian inclination for good deals saw a surge in these payments. However, with the cash flows having resumed, the transaction growth in these areas is becoming muted. Also, this was at best a byproduct, for the government to say that this was one of the main aims of the exercise really smacks of opportunism, if not hypocrisy.
With all this said, are there any long lasting gains from this drive then? Yes, there definitely is and only the open minded will be able to see the obvious. We now have all cash in the banking system and in a manner that can now be traced. For example, a Real estate transaction can still have some cash component BUT now the IT authorities know the money trail. This is of significant advantage and will now help IT people to follow up on any suspicious transactions. Yes, this will take time, given the paucity of resources but it is sure process though slow at times. The regulation on cash spending is a good follow up measure and this again helps in tracing the money trail. Also, the fact that cash has come back does not mean it has been accepted as accounted income. If you have a sum of 10 lacs in your bank account deposited last year, you will still need to account for it.
So while the overall impact in the short run may be poor, the long term benefits of a cleaner economy that is far more tax compliant will definitely be there. Other measures such as clamping down on benami properties and getting GST to be effective will also help in this regard. The problem is with the government trying to get mileage out of it politically and hence shifting the stands every now and then.
Demonetisation was a bitter pill to swallow for many of the citizens and for people affected adversely the taste lingers. It will however, usher in a completely new country as long as things are followed to their logical conclusion, without fear or favour.