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Demonetisation’s short-term costs were high, long-term benefit doubtful 

New Delhi, Nov 7 (IANS) When Raghuram Rajan, former governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), cautioned the government against demonetisation, saying short-term economic costs would outweigh long-term benefits, he was not trying to be prophetic. But a year after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made that fateful announcement in a nationwide broadcast on the evening of November 8, it would seem Rajan’s words had actually become so.

As economists and analysts, corporate honchos and statisticians struggle to gauge the beneficial impact of demonetisation, many of the objectives claimed by the government have fallen by the wayside. New claims and afterthoughts on the note ban by senior politicians in power have remained unconvincing. Demonetisation has raised more questions than it has answered.

The Prime Minister, in banning 1,000 and 500-rupee notes — or 86 per cent of total currency in circulation — had indicated that the decision would help remove black money from the system, rein in terrorism and take fake currency out of circulation. Have these objectives been met?

“Demonetisation was an utter failure. Theoretically it was known it cannot be successful. It could not remove black money, but in turn it has damaged the white economy and growth,” Arun Kumar, former professor of economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) told IANS.

The benefits of the decision are yet to percolate to the economy, but the disruption as well as pain that it caused to hundreds of millions was very real, whose lingering effects are seen to this day and, which, at that time, had shaken the country to its core, touching nearly every citizen and visitor.

The overnight serpentine queues for weeks in front of banks, the loss of over a hundred lives in the effort to withdraw one’s own money or change it, and the desperate desire to ensure that cash in hand did not turn to ash took its toll across the country. Was it worth it?

“The government made the elementary mistake of believing that black money is kept in cash. Black wealth can be transacted by non-cash means as well,” said Kumar, who is now Chair-Professor with the Institute of Social Sciences. “Only three per cent of Indians generate substantial black money. But for this, the other 97 per cent had to face the consequences of demonetisation.”

After months of vacillating, and being less than honest with citizens, RBI data in August 2017 said that 99 per cent of the banned currency in high denomination notes had returned to the banking system — Rs 15.28 lakh crore out of the Rs 15.44 lakh crore in circulation on November 8, 2016. The calculation does not take into account the money changed by people in Nepal, where it’s legal tender, or old notes held by many non-resident Indians who could not exchange it within the deadline.

“Indian demonetisation was remarkable, because unlike many countries that faced major economic and political problems after even less drastic measures, this passed off peacefully as most Indians accepted the (wrong) argument that this would end corruption,” Jayati Ghosh, Economics Professor at JNU, told IANS.

“The initial reasons the government had advanced for this move, of reducing terrorism and eliminating both black money and corruption, were rapidly abandoned for other supposed goals, which are also yet to be met. There was no planning before unleashing such a big decision,” she added.

The difficulty in making a cost-benefit analysis is that the move was not purely economic, given the fact that the currency issuer — the RBI — had no role in the decision, as testified by Rajan.

Demonetisation comes across more as a measure of political economy which may appear, on the face of it, to have paid immediate political dividend to the Prime Minister and his party in the Uttar Pradesh elections this year. But the medium-to long-term picture would take a while to clear up, though short-term impact has already taken its toll on growth.

At the end of May, the Central Statistics Office announced that the GDP during the fourth quarter ending in March this year, fell sharply to 6.1 per cent from seven per cent in the previous quarter, while growth for the year as a whole was also expected to decline correspondingly. India’s GDP during the past fiscal grew at 7.1 per cent — at a rate lower than the eight per cent achieved in 2015-16. In terms of gross value added, which excludes taxes but includes subsidies, the growth came in even lower at 5.6 percent over 2015-16.

“Demonetisation is a textbook example of what happens when you remove liquidity that is the basis of transactions. The immediate result was that people didn’t have money even for small transactions. This had a strong negative multiplier effect, most evident in the informal sector,” Ghosh said.

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