Pain from demonetisation eases in India, but not in Bharat

Prime Minister Narendra Modi called demonetisation a ‘Mahayagna’ in his speech on the evening of 8 November when he scrapped Rs 500, Rs 1,000 currency notes asking citizens to ‘stand up and participate’ in the exercise to make it a grand success.

The note ban was initially sold as a war on black money, fake currency and terror funding and later as a project to create a cashless economy. Everyone, including Modi’s political rivals, lauded his intention behind note ban — cleansing the economy from illegal cash and fake currency and make each rupee floating in the banking system accountable to tax scrutiny — but in the same breath criticised the way the government and Reserve Bank of India (RBI) handled the implementation.

PM Modi asked for 50 days to end the common man's pain. Post 50-days, let’s take a look at what has happened since the demonetisation announcement.

 Pain from demonetisation eases in India, but not in Bharat

Prime minister Narendra Modi. PTI file photo

To begin with, there were a series of flip-flops in rules that could have been avoided had there been a proper plan. More than 60 circulars were issued in just one month confusing both bankers and customers. Promises made by both the PM and RBI were broken adding to confusions.

Promises broken

Look at these statements: In his speech, Modi said “you will have 50 days to deposit your notes and there is no need for panic. Your money will remain yours. You need have no worry on this point. After depositing your money in your account, you can draw it when you need it. Keeping in mind the supply of new notes, in the first few days, there will be a limit of ten thousand rupees per day and twenty thousand rupees per week. This limit will be increased in the coming days.”

True, money in their bank accounts belonged to the citizens but Modi’s promise that people can withdraw as per their need wasn’t fulfilled since banks struggled to fill their ATMs and branches to meet the increasing customer demand. This was on account of three reasons: 1) the government mints couldn’t churn out enough new notes to meet the demand; it was beyond their capacity even after working in three shifts; 2) the fresh lot of new currencies that arrived were mostly Rs 2,000 notes; there were not enough change to go around; 3) people who managed to draw money started hoarding it as curbs on cash withdrawals created panic.

On Thursday, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley refused to acknowledge even a single case of ‘unrest’ during the 50 days of demonetisation.

But, what about the ruckus at the banks and ATMs causing inconvenience to the public reported from across the country linked to demonetisation? Surely, all of it can’t be fake.

During his parivartan rally in Moradabad, UP, Modi asked Jan Dhan account holders not to withdraw the black money deposited in their accounts and promised that he will find a way for them to keep that money. This wasn’t in good taste because he was effectively offering a reward to the benami account holders for abetting a wrongdoing.

In his 8 November speech, Modi assured the citizens that they don’t need to panic and can exchange their old currency till 30 December. “From 10th November till 24th November the limit for such exchange will be 4,000 rupees. From 25th November till 30th December, the limit will be increased.”

But, the government, in fact, chose to advance the deadline much before the promised date. Lastly, there was a 19 December circular from RBI restricting deposits above Rs 5,000 only once, which was later withdrawn. Here again, a promise made initially was broken.

Lack of preparedness, transparency

The point here is both the government and the RBI were not prepared to face the rush for cash as evident from the frequent change in rules in the days following the demonetisation announcement. Even though the RBI promised a weekly withdrawal limits of Rs 24,000 (hiked from the initial Rs 20,000) and Rs 2,500 from recalibrated ATMs (from Rs 2000 initially), banks were unable to give even this amount to customers, often leading to altercations between staff and customers.

After 50 days, the cash situation has improved for sure, but only mildly. The situation has indeed turned better in metros, where ATM queues are now shorter. But, in rural areas the situation hasn’t improved much. As this Indian Express ground report states: since most farmers maintained accounts in cooperative banks, they continue to be in a spot. The informal economy, which offers employment to millions of workers, has been shattered. It will take a long time before small entrepreneurs recover from the shock. The cooperative banking sector, which plays a prominent role in rural India, is struggling to survive.

The RBI’s reluctance to communicate effectively and lack of transparency in updating information in public domain, added to confusion. An end to the cash-crunch isn’t in sight yet. Till 19 December, the RBI has infused Rs 5.92 lakh crore in the banking system as against the Rs 15.44 lakh crore demonetised. Given the physical constraints of four mints run by the RBI and government, it is unlikely that cash situation will return to normal before March 2017, according to bankers. This means, the cash curbs will stay longer.

Economy impact

Demonetisation is sure to have short-term impact on the economy which is predominantly dependendent on cash transactions the signs of which are already visible. The RBI has lowered the GDP forecast for the year to 7.1 percent, so have most private forecasters. The consumption story has taken a hit. The services sector PMI sharply fell to 46.7 in November from 54.5 in October — that is the biggest monthly drop since November 2008, just two months after the global financial crisis hit the economy following the US investment bank Lehman Brothers going bust in September.

Similarly, the manufacturing PMI too has fallen with the index shrinking to 52.3 in November from October’s 22-month high of 54.4. data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), unemployment rates fell to less than 5 percent in the week of 27 November, but has since risen to 6.1 percent in the week of 4 December to 6.6 percent in the week ended 11 December and then to 7 percent in the week ended 18 December. The impact comes with a lag and we need to wait for fresh numbers. The full impact of the demonetisation resulted cash crunch will only unfold in the next few months. If the cash crunch prolongs, things can get worse.

RBI fighting a trust deficit

Another highlight of the 50-day period was the fall of the RBI, which faced criticism for giving up its autonomy and credibility. The RBI appeared clueless how to take the demonetisation process ahead from the beginning and faced criticism from former central bankers including Usha Thorat and K C Chakrabarty. According to a Bloomberg report, the RBI board approved demonetisation less than three hours before Modi announced the decision in a televised address to the nation.

Information on how many members favored or opposed the move isn’t “on record,” the RBI said in response to queries from Bloomberg News under the Right to Information Act, the report said.

The report also cited Power Minister Piyush Goyal’s comment to lawmakers on 16 November that it was RBI’s 10-member board that came up with the idea of note ban. Was the RBI forced to approve the idea of demonetisation is something only time will tell.

Demonetisation gains

Will demonetisation deliver its originally stated long-term gains of demonetisation -- winning black money, killing fake currency and terror? Long-term gains are hard to predict at this stage. The tangible gains of demonetisation will dependent up on how much illegal cash is unearthed at the end of this exercise. Demonetisation as a trigger for Indians to shift to a digital world of finance is a far-stretched idea since such a change can’t happen overnight and should be gradual. As of now, only pains are visible.

True, in the long term demonetisation may prove to be beneficial when more people come in the tax net. This coupled with the Goods and Services Tax (GST) rollout can reboot the economy. But, that point is still away. Adjusting to the loss to the economy and the pain suffered by common man that isn’t quantifiable, what will be the net gain to economy from demonetisation is a question PM Modi will have to answer with support of evidence when he once again face the electorate in 2019.

For full coverage of Union Budget 2017 click here.

Updated Date: Jan 15, 2017 20:57:48 IST