An Alternative to Modi’s Demonetization Plan – Without the Pain and the Deaths
Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 25 November, 2016
Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar. All Rights Reserved.
The money-exchange scheme announced in India by PM Modi on the evening of November 8, 2016, has caused tremendous hardship to the people of the country. More than 50 people have died as a result of the policy, while countless people have been forced into extreme hardship. Much more suffering is to come.
Three questions immediately present themselves. One, does the scheme solve the stated objectives of eliminating black money and counterfeit money? Two, does the country have the capacity to absorb the shock of removal of 86% of the cash stocks in the country and their slow replacement, either by stocks of new money or a cashless economy – a process likely to take months? Three, and most importantly, does a better alternative exist?
There has been much debate on the first aspect – viz., whether the scheme under implementation can solve the black money and counterfeit problem. I will only discuss this briefly, and focus on the second and third questions.
I show in this article that the country simply does not have the capacity to absorb the shock of the removal of 86% of the cash stocks in the country.
Further, I also show that a much better alternative to the government’s scheme exists – a scheme that does not focus on chasing stocks of black money, but on completely eliminating black money and counterfeit money, once and for all, in a painless process that does not involve people starving, losing their livelihoods, or dying.
Large portions of this article recently appeared in a column that I wrote in Frontline magazine – the entire section titled “Flaws of the Demonetization Scheme” is taken verbatim from the aforementioned Frontline article: this article expands on that column in order to provide a comprehensive look at the problem, and a better solution than the one the government has implemented.
On November 8, PM Modi announced a money-exchange scheme, the stated objectives of which were twofold:
1. Elimination of hoarded stocks of black money
2. Neutralization of the circulation of counterfeit money
Later interactions with the government through press conferences revealed a third objective: A move of the country to a cashless economy.
According to Modi's speech on the evening of the 8th of November, all existing Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 notes would cease to be legal tender by the end of the day; banks and ATMs would be shut for the next 2 days to stock them with new Rs. 2,000 notes and notes of other lower denominations; and after that, banks would start accepting cash deposits and return up to Rs. 4,000 per person in exchange, the rest remaining in their bank accounts; and ATMs would disburse up to Rs. 2,000 per card per day, up to a total of Rs. 20,000 per week. (These limits have changed since and are very dynamic, with new policies being announced virtually every day, which points to a complete lack of planning.)
The impression given was that people would be inconvenienced for just two days and then the bank branches, working late hours and weekends, along with well-stocked ATMs, would relieve any stress or anxiety on the part of the public.
Since then, there has been much hardship experienced by the public because of this move, and these have been documented very well by other articles in the media. Many have also asked if the move really addresses the larger problem of black money in the country; whether this move is really likely to stop black money; and whether the introduction of the Rs. 2000 note will not actually increase the hoarding of black money. There have also been debates on how much actual financial benefit is likely to accrue to the government.
I will not discuss any of these issues here. My concern is more fundamental – whether the move to take out the Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes out of circulation and replacing them with new notes was carefully considered in light of the existing infrastructure, and whether alternatives exist.
Flaws of the Demonetization Scheme
The decision to remove the Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes left most Indians in the lurch. This was because 86% of all the currency printed by the government was in the form of Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes (by value). According to the annual report of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) dated 29 August 2016, as of March 2016 the currency notes in circulation had a total value of Rs. 16.42 trillion (or lakh crores). Of these, 86.4%, or Rs. 14.18 trillion was in Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes. This was the amount sucked out of the system at midnight on November 8. It was estimated that, of this amount, about 25%, or Rs. 3.5 trillion, was black, meaning that people possessing it would not deposit it in the bank for fear of attracting huge penalties or jail time. That would mean that the amount of money in circulation that would now need to be deposited in banks and exchanged for new notes is approximately Rs. 10.64 trillion. This is to be done entirely through bank branches and ATMs.
In press interactions since the demonetization move was taken, the FM has informed the people that this move is part of a larger plan to move to a cashless economy, and urged people to start using electronic banking, mobile payment, and credit and debit cards. The attempts by people to exchange their now-worthless money for new, usable notes hit another roadblock as ATMs needed to be recalibrated to accept the new notes, a process the FM estimated as needing another three weeks. In yet another interaction, PM Modi informed the nation that he expected the hardship to continue until December 30th at the latest.
But is this realistic? Are the two major legs on which the demonetization scheme stands, viz., for citizens to deposit old notes in banks and withdraw their money using either bank account withdrawals or ATM withdrawals, or the transition to a cashless economy for 50 days, relying only on ATMs, bank branches, smartphones, credit and debit cards, realistic at this time? What percentage of Indians actually do have access to these?
The Global Financial Inclusion report, prepared by the World Bank, gives a lot of useful information to answer these questions. The data shows that while things are improving, they are nowhere near where they need to be. For instance, the percentage of those 15 years or above who had a bank account rose from 35% in 2011 to 53% in 2014. The number of ATMs per 100,000 Indians, on average, was around 18. This compares unfavourably to other countries like 66 in South Africa, 129 in Brazil, and 184 in Russia. Clearly India is a lot more unprepared to deal with a situation where 86% of the cash vanishes overnight than any of these nations. Figure 1 shows the availability of ATMs in several countries over the last decade.
|Figure 1. Availability of ATMs in Different Countries|
Credit and debit card usage does not fare much better. The Global Financial Inclusion report says that in 2014, only 11% of Indians 15 or above made a payment using a debit card, and only 3.4% used a credit card; and only 2.2% used a mobile phone to make payments. Further, it says that in 2014, only 6.4% borrowed from a financial institution, whereas 12.6% borrowed from a private lender; 6.6% borrowed from a store by buying on credit; 5.4% borrowed from an employer; and 32.3% borrowed from family or friends. The Indian economy is therefore dominated by cash and unaccounted transactions, and most people are quite unfamiliar with electronic means of payment and withdrawal. Only 20% received their wages at a bank. Less than 0.2% of Indians used a mobile phone to pay utility bills; just over 4% of all Indians used a bank account for business purposes; just under 4% of Indians used a bank account to receive government transfers; and only 6.7% used checks to make payments.
What is very clear from these figures is that a large majority of Indians are not even in the formal banking/financial net, let alone specialized forms of it such as internet banking and mobile banking using smartphones. Further, it should be kept in mind that these figures, dismal as they are, do not reflect the true desperation of the situation today, because they are average figures for India and do not reflect the urban/rural divide.
Figure 2, taken from the RBI’s “Report of the Committee on Medium-Term Path on Financial Inclusion,” dated 28 December 2015, shows that the bank branch density in rural areas is less than half of the bank branch density in urban areas. Rural India is largely cash-driven. One reason for this is that agricultural income is exempt from income tax, and a lot of transactions are done with cash alone. This is not black money.
|Figure 2. Variation in Bank Branch Density in Rural and Urban India|
So, the irony of the situation is that bank branches and ATMs are far fewer in the rural areas, but the percentage of wealth that is held in cash in rural India is much greater than what is held as cash in urban India, where people use banks to store their money – and now these rural Indians will have to contend with getting their larger stores of money in and out of banks with little experience doing so and this during a liquidity crisis!
The Jan Dhan Yojana has created a lot of new bank accounts in India, but a lot of them are zero-balance accounts, and people have not yet taken to using them.
It should be clear from the above that rural India was woefully unprepared for the shock of the withdrawal of 86% of liquid currency on November 8, and is unlikely to recover from this situation any time soon.
One of the main thrusts of the economic policy of this government is the JAM troika – standing for Jan-Dhan Yojana, Aadhar unique identification, and Mobile. The RBI’s Economic Survey of India 2015-2016 discusses, in Chapter 3, the JAM approach in detail and presents a JAM preparedness index – i.e., how ready is India for a world in which benefits will be transmitted electronically to bank accounts, verified by Aadhar cards, and accessed by mobile phones – in other words, a cashless economy, of the kind people have been forced to confront themselves today. A JAM preparedness index of 100% indicates full preparation, and 0% indicates complete unpreparedness.
Figure 3 shows the JAM preparedness index for urban India, and Figure 4 shows the index for rural India. It should be very clear that India, especially rural India, is neither ready for a JAM world, nor was it ready for the world of November 9, 2016.
|Figure 3. JAM Preparedness Index for Urban India|
|Figure 4. JAM Preparedness Index for Rural India|
This is going to lead to unbelievable suffering in the next 50 days. People are going to starve and die – many already have; people are going to continue to be refused medical treatment for life-threatening illnesses and pregnancies for lack of liquid cash; and farmers are going to suffer as they cannot sell their produce or buy seeds. Business is going to come to a standstill in both rural and urban India. The worst effects of this measure will be felt by those with the least capacity to absorb these shocks.
An Alternative Solution
One of the arguments put forth by the Government and its supporters is that there was no alternative to all this pain and chaos – that this was the only way.
“Do you not want black money and counterfeit money to be ended?” they thunder.
Indeed, we do. Every right-thinking person in this country would like a more honest system in which there is no black money and no counterfeit money. But there are many ways to skin a cat. The way the Government has chosen is full of fatal flaws.
Is there a better alternative? Yes, there is – a painless alternative that will not result in anyone losing their livelihoods, their health, or their lives. And I will discuss that here.
It is clear that all these problems experienced by the people are because of the fact that the system simply does not have the infrastructure for people to exchange their money and get new notes in a reasonable time-frame. That is because the necessary tools, viz., online banking, internet connections, smartphones, physical banks and ATMs, and credit and debit cards, are simply not widespread enough. In other words, the problems have happened because the government has put the cart before the horse.
Therefore, the better alternative would have been for the government to first build the necessary infrastructure – to invest in last-mile connectivity for banks; to invest in cheap smartphones (as they did with the Akash tablet) so that every Indian could afford one to engage in financial business; to ensure national internet connectivity; to get every Indian in the banking net; to make all Indians use only debit and credit cards for purchases; and to make all Indians use mobile apps such as PayTM or apps using the new Unified Payments Interface (UPI) to make even the smallest purchases, such as buying vegetables on the street.
This will take time and have to be done in a calibrated manner, by both investing in the infrastructure as well as working on people’s inertia, by gradually closing off alternative means of payment such as cash in sector after sector.
So the government could announce, for example, that all supermarkets and malls would no longer accept cash for amounts greater than Rs. 500 after six months; that in the next one year, the Railways will stop accepting cash for tickets and only accept electronic payments such as credit cards, debit cards, internet banking, mobile wallets such as PayTM or Mobikwik, and payment banks under the UPI; that in six months after that, no government office will accept cash for any transaction; and so on.
This will force more people to go cashless – but it will give them sufficient time to prepare for a cashless economy – to open bank accounts, to get debit and credit cards, to obtain cheap smartphones subsidized by the government, to learn how to use apps such as PayTM or UPI-based apps, to use ATM kiosks for internet banking to pay bills, and so on. Since it will not be an overnight change, it gives people time to learn these new tools and make an orderly transition. There will be no panic and no one will die of shock. If there is a wedding or an operation, people have six months or a year to plan an alternative way of payment, rather than be surprised by a last-minute pulling of the rug under their feet.
Once this is done, cash will die a natural death and there will be no need for a demonetization drive. This also automatically removes the threat of counterfeit money – since the economy is cashless, there is no worry about counterfeit bills. Also, since everything is electronic, nothing can be hidden. Everything is tracked, and there is no black money. People will not offer cash bribes because nobody will accept something that cannot buy anything.
This is exactly what one of the most advanced countries in the world, Sweden, is actually doing – by ensuring that everyone has internet connectivity and the necessary devices, they are eliminating cash. But this is not something that you can do overnight. It takes years, and is gradual. All the objectives of the government are achieved – eliminating of black money (not just a stash, but even the generation of black money); eliminating of counterfeit money; bringing everyone under the tax net; and moving India to a cashless economy. All this without a single person dying.
But it does not fetch you dramatic headlines.
1. World Bank Data on Financial Inclusion. http://databank.worldbank.org/data/databases.aspx
2. RBI Report on Financial Inclusion. https://rbi.org.in/scripts/PublicationReportDetails.aspx?ID=836#CH1
3. Economic Survey of India 2015-16. http://indiabudget.nic.in/survey.asp
For other articles by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, please visit http://www.leftbrainwave.com
Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.