Revenue Secretary, Hashmukh Adhia’s warning on prosecution on deposits above Rs. 2.5 lakhs that do not match the depositor's income, has triggered panic among holders of Rs 500, Rs 1,000 notes, but only among those who have no evidence to show the source of this money.
For them, the statement from Adhia has come as a nightmare: We would be getting reports of all cash deposited during the period of November 10 to December 30, 2016 above a threshold of Rs 2.5 lakh in every account. The (tax) department would do matching of this with income returns filed by the depositors. And suitable action may follow."
But, there is no surprise here in Adhia’s caution. The very objective of the currency crackdown was to break the back of black money/fake currency community, who lived happily so far with only occasional intrusions in their peaceful lives, holding cash that existed on no worldly records.
When Prime Minister, Narendra Modi announced the decision to withdraw Rs 500, Rs 1000 notes from public use post-Tuesday midnight, the idea was to give no time for illegal holders of money to find an escape channel.
The currency crackdown was a meticulously planned joint operation between the government, the tax department and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). Most bankers were kept in the dark about the exact nature of this plan. An operation planned in high secrecy and executed with clinical precision, much like the ‘surgical attacks’ of 29 September that has now become part of Modi’s urban legends.
How it began
According to banking industry sources, there were some indications a few months before that some action will happen, but “no one knew what exactly.”
“Recently, new notes arrived but most officers thought it is part of routine operations. It wasn’t,” said one of the Mumbai-based bankers.
The Modi-government even risked a great deal of public discontent following the hurried, unpopular move. None of the people who experienced the chaos before ATMs across the country on Tuesday night would have praised Modi for what he did. But, given the larger purpose of the operation, the short-term discontent was an acceptable proposition for the government.
It timed the operation well.
When the 30 September black money window was on, both the government and the RBI were silently preparing the ground for the final crackdown without giving any clue to habitual offenders on what was coming. The planning for this excercise must have begun at least six months in advance when the government opened a black money window for offenders to come clean.
New notes were being printed and the transition mode was worked out. This was needed since 86 percent of the currency in circulation, in terms of value, is Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. In absolute terms, the figure will work out to around Rs 14 lakh crore.
Remember, in July, when the black money window opened for domestic citizens, PM Modi had warned that no one should blame him for what he does after 30 September. Aur us paap ko karna nahi chahata hu jo September 30 ko mujhe karna padega (I do not want to commit the sin which I will have to do after 30 September against black money holders)," Modi had said. This shows that the government had a clear picture of the post 30 September operation in mind and were working on the whole process silently. The RBI was consulted and taken into confidence throughout, though the government took the lead in the operation.
The Income Declaration Scheme (IDS) that opened on 1 June, gave an opportunity to illegal asset holders to come clean by declaring the assets by 30 September and paying tax and penalty of 45 percent thereafter. The government warned that those who fail to take advantage of the scheme will have to face stringent action, including imprisonment. That was a time when the Income Tax department had already identified 90 lakh high value transactions without PAN.
Let’s be clear, what is on now is an operation to hunt down black money holders, no matter what the near-term repercussions. Even P Chidambaram’s presser on Wednesday didn’t have much to point at the government on the currency crackdown, except to caution that it should implement the process fast.
Adhia’s statement sends a clear message to wrongdoers. Anyone hoping to join the queue of customers to deposit sacks of Rs 500/Rs 1,000 notes -- their ill-gotten wealth -- and make it legitimate from today will risk prosecution.
To be sure, even now there are some loopholes to bring out a small portion of their black money by depositing small amounts below the limit the government has prescribed or using benami bank accounts and fudged documents to split the booty.
But, it isn’t going to be easy when the deposits will be recorded on camera and ientity proofs will be insisted at every stage. The smart crooks can still do some tricks but most of their ill-gotten wealth stored in hard cash will not see the light of day.
A job half-done yet
Have no illusion. The government’s currency crackdown will not entirely destroy India’s parallel economy. But, it will certainly address important constituents of India’s parallel economy—the black money holders and fake currency in circulation. Who will be left out are those who have stocked their black money in gold, real estate and through benami transactions. But, this too will come under the golden light sooner or later.
Also, counterfeit note makers, who are completely off the job for now, will return to the market upgrading their machines once they get a sample of the new Rs 500, Rs 2,000 notes. They will have to significantly upgrade their technology if government adds the rumored extra features in the new notes. But, the nature of crooks are such that they will work around that too. But, that won’t happen immediately. Down the line, 6-8 months later, the government will have to deal with the problem of new counterfeit notes and a fresh batch of black money. A similar exercise will have to be repeated then and government has to do what it did on Tuesday night.
The extent of fake currency and black money in the domestic economy is so huge that it has created a substantial parallel economy that no one—neither the RBI nor the taxmen—had any clue about. A confidential government report in 2011 said, four in every 1,000 currency notes in circulation in India were fake at that point, amounting to as much as Rs 3,200 crore in 2010.
But, this was only an estimate, not even close to an accurate assessment. As far as black money is concerned, the scene is even vaguer.
Remember, when the government’s black money window was closed in September, under which Rs 65,250 crore worth black money was declared from 64,275 declarations, Firstpost said it’s time Modi-government went for the final crackdown.
Going by the government’s version, any entry in bank branches where old Rs 500, Rs 1,000 notes are to be exchanged between 10 November and 30 December, will be recorded with documentary evidence, making it impossible to escape the taxman. The source of the money needs to be shown properly, else risk getting caught with the booty. The crackdown practically offers no time for the depositors to think of alternative plans. Thanks to the power of social media, to use a cliché, the news spread like wildfire leaving no room for the wrongdoers to get rid of their unaccounted cash. The approaching days will be even difficult for them.
It will hit real estate developers and small traders most since they typically deal in cash to avoid paying tax; also, political parties. In India, about 70-75 percent of political funding does not have any records of source. These politicians would have spent Tuesday night wondering what to do with their hidden cash piles.
Fight against black money
The currency crackdown is the third and most important stage of Modi-government’s attempt to bring black money back to the formal system. The process began when it announced a 90 days amnesty-like window for foreign black money holders charging them 60 percent tax shortly after coming to power.
A total of Rs 4,147 crore of undeclared wealth was declared and the government garnered Rs 2,500 crore from the whole exercise, a paltry sum considering the kind of black money stashed abroad. This was followed by the July-September window that saw declarations worth Rs 65,250 crore. Beyond attacking the parallel economy, the crackdown will offer a major boost to promote non-cash transactions in the country, a long-term dream of the governments and the central bank, but which has largely remained on paper so far.
Tuesday evening’s currency crackdown shouldn’t be seen as a one-off event. It was a carefully executed operation, a political and economic masterstroke by Modi, which is unlikely to end here. The next line of action should be tracking down the benami assets and asset holding disproportionate to the recorded income, which is even more difficult since most of the offenders will be either politicians or those who have links to them.