RBI's recent report: a rare moment of truth
The Reserve Bank of India's recent report on demonetization confirms what was expected by many from the day the measure was announced: that it would not reduce black money - rather, it would be a huge cost to the economy and society. According to the RBI report, 99.3 per cent of the banned notes have been returned to the banking system (and fresh notes issued against these in new denominations and new designs). If Indian currency held in neighbouring countries like Nepal and Bhutan are allowed to be returned, the amount may well cross 100 per cent. A couple of things become immediately evident. The hoarded stock of unaccounted for wealth in the form of currency has been returned and it has become perfectly legitimate. Secondly, the excess over 100 per cent implies the existence of counterfeit notes. These too have been legitimized by being converted into new currency notes. So much for the major objectives announced by the prime minister - namely unearthing black money and preventing counterfeit notes being printed. The third objective is hard to prove, but only a person with extremely limited intelligence would even consider it to be an important argument for demonetization - namely deterring fund flows for terrorism. This funding can be done in a large number of ways, and Indian currency is not necessary at all for this activity to thrive and grow.
The next issue of importance is: who bore the costs of this absurd measure? There was a drop in the growth rate of gross domestic product, jobs were lost in the micro and small informal sectors of the economy that were choked of liquidity. Ordinary citizens wasted time and energy to stand in endless queues to get their own hard-earned money back. Some lives were even lost out of sheer exhaustion from standing in long queues for longer lengths of time. Then there were the direct costs of printing new currency notes, distributing them, and recalibrating ATM machines. Higher denomination notes were issued which were smaller in physical size. Nothing could be more devoid of common sense: making cash easier to hoard and carry.
The prime minister's emphatic speeches made at the time of demonetization now might appear like theatrical dialogue full of sound and fury. However, unlike the quote from Shakespeare, perhaps it did signify something. It could be viewed as the perpetration of a gigantic con, where the purpose was to give a large-scale amnesty to people with unaccounted for cash. All the while the public was led to believe that those with ill-gotten wealth were going to be punished. The government, however, continues to claim that the measure was a success. The question remains: success for whom? What is surprising and reassuring is that in spite of the inordinate time taken over the report by the RBI, the truth prevailed. In today's India this is a rarest of rare achievement.