If stamping out black money was the intention of the move, not even 0.01% of that has been extinguished
Demonetisation as a means of tackling the black economy was destined to fail. It was carried out on the incorrect premise that black money means cash. It was thought that if cash was squeezed out, the black economy would be eliminated. But cash is only one component of black wealth: about 1% of it. It has now been confirmed that 98.8% of demonetised currency has come back to the Reserve Bank of India. Further, of the ₹16,000 crore that is still out, most of it is accounted for. In brief, not even 0.01% of black money has been extinguished.
Black money is a result of black income generation. This is produced by various means which are not affected by the one-shot squeezing out of cash. Any black cash squeezed out by demonetisation would then quickly get regenerated. So, there is little impact of demonetisation on the black economy, on either wealth or incomes.
The government is highly embarrassed, and to cover it up, it has again changed the goalpost. It now argues that it is good that black money has been deposited in the banks because those depositing it can now be caught. But the government had tried to prevent people from depositing demonetised currency by changing rules during the 50-day period. It is now fighting hard in the Supreme Court against giving one more chance to deposit the demonetised notes that may have been left with the old and the infirm.
The government changed the goalpost earlier in November 2016 when it suggested that the real aim of demonetisation was a cashless society. Now it says that idle money has come into the system, the cash-to-GDP ratio will decline, the tax base will expand, and so on. But none of these required demonetisation and could and should have been implemented independently. Further, anticipating the failure of demonetisation in 2016 itself, the government started saying that demonetisation is only one of the many steps to tackle the black economy.
The government’s argument that cash coming back to the banks will enable it to catch the generators of black income, and there will be formalisation of the economy, does not hold. Much of the cash in the system is held by the tens of millions of businesses as working capital and by the more than 25 crore households that need it for their day-to-day transactions.
Those who bore the brunt
So, large deposits by businesses do not automatically become black. The Income Tax department has to prove that the sums deposited resulted from generation of black income. But it does not have the resources for dealing with lakhs of tax payers. According to the Finance Minister, big data analytics would track black money holders who have deposited cash in their bank accounts. During the Income Declaration Scheme in 2016, the same was said. Nothing came of it and demonetisation was announced.
The big failure of demonetisation is that it was carried out without preparation and caused big losses to the unorganised sector. This has not been factored into the recent data on growth rate, so the loss to the economy would be in lakhs of crores of rupees. Farmers, traders and the youth are all agitating.
The black economy needs to be tackled, but demonetisation is not the way. The brunt of this move has been borne by those who never had any black money. The note shortage is slowly waning and the long-term economic and social effects are becoming evident.
Arun Kumar is Professor, Institute of Social Sciences