Good, bad, what the hell was that: Economists are still scratching their heads over demonetisation

The jury is still out.
The jury is still out.
Image: Reuters/ Shailesh Andrade
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Ten months later, the debate over demonetisation’s success rages on among India’s top bankers and economists.

On Nov. 08, 2016, the government gave India a shock in the form of demonetisation. In the surprise move, Rs500 and Rs1,000 notes were declared illegal, leading to a severe cash-crunch in the economy.

On Aug. 30 the Reserve Bank of India revealed that about 99% of the notes in circulation have returned to the banking system. This reignited the debate over the need for demonetisation. Some argue that with all the money coming back to the banks, the government has failed to meet its primary objective of curbing black money; others believe that the long-term benefits are yet to play out. 

Several economists further argue that the merits of the exercise could have been achieved without paralysing the economy. The supporters, meanwhile, believe it can lead to a widening of the income tax-payer base.

Here’s what some of them told Quartz: 

(The responses have been edited slightly for clarity.)

😊Arvind Virmani, former chief economic advisor

In the last demonetisation in the late 70s, 2% of the currency notes were un-returned and consequently immobilised. In this exercise, about 1.25% of a much larger proportion of total currency was immobilised. This is significant considering the higher amount of currency in circulation. Another collateral benefit is the rise in detection of counterfeit currency, revealed by the RBI. This would be largely fake notes that general consumers were holding on to but were unaware (of).

The RBI report didn’t give any data on increase in (the number of) income-tax payers or (the) income tax paid, which is expected to be a major benefit of the demonetisation. (The) government has also identified suspicious deposits from which it hopes to collect taxes and penalties, but there is no data yet on what proportion of these will yield revenues. There is also no information in the RBI report on the extent of price reduction and black money reduction in the real estate sector.

(The) government also considered demonetisation as part of a moral-social campaign against black money and ill-gotten gains. Though this is very hard to evaluate, my guess would be that this demonetisation has contributed to this campaign, by making tax evasion and corruption less acceptable in society.

😞Jayati Ghosh, professor at the New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University

It wasn’t an effective exercise. Many of us had realised earlier that people who are supposedly hoarding black money will be the first to find ways to beat the system. And we saw it happening and that’s why most of the deposits have come back to the system. So instead of the corrupt, the ordinary people were made to suffer unnecessarily and put through all kinds of torture, including death in certain cases.

The only long-term gain is probably the less use of cash now. However, this push towards digitisation could have been done in a less dramatic and painful way. Incentivising the customers to use plastic or digital money would have been more effective. This exercise has only served a political purpose and created an impression in the minds of certain voters that the government is doing something about getting rid of black money

😐Pronab Sen, former principal advisor, planning commission of India:

There are two parts to the story. The government expected around Rs3.5-4 lakh crore to not come back to the system and that would have been a blow to the wealth of the-black-money holders. That has clearly not happened.

The second part is that with the seeding of Aadhaar, and with money coming back to the formal banking channel after demonetisation, the income-tax department can do its job more effectively to stop money laundering. Now, this is possible but I don’t think it has been done so far.

In the first place, I don’t think this exercise was necessary but now that it has happened, it makes sense to put the takeaways of this exercise to better use. Demonetisation has managed to magnify the discrepancies in the wealth-tax data, making it easier to track. So the IT department should now use it to stop money laundering.

😊Soumya Kanti Ghosh, group chief economic advisor, State Bank of India: 

I believe the benefits of this exercise will be felt more in the long-term than in the short-term. For example, use of plastic money has got a boost. Then, as per reports,  the government is investigating Rs3 lakh crore that has been deposited in 11 lakh accounts. This can translated into huge earnings from the government in term of income tax.

With this exercise, an additional Rs3 lakh crore has been injected into the banking system as people have deposited money lying idle with them. This excess liquidity will help in bringing down lending rates. So, I believe the impact of this exercise will be felt over a period of time.

I don’t think it’s fair to say that it hasn’t been a success just because the notes have come back to the system. I think there are other gains that are likely to come from it in the next one-two years that are being ignored at the moment. The government is looking at cracking down on shell companies, benami transactions, and that is also a result of this exercise. It is too premature to write off demonetisation.

😞Dharmakirti Joshi, chief economist, CRISIL:

I think the jury is still out on how effective this note-ban was. The short-term effect has played out and I think it is clearly negative. It has effect even on the GDP growth and its impact will linger on. The measure of its success will be if it can push the-direct-tax-to-GDP ratio by at least 1-1.5% over the next two-three years.