It is said that “money is an idea that inspires confidence”. At the stroke of the midnight hour, on November 9, 2016, the confidence of more than a billion Indians was destroyed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had declared that more than 85 per cent of the value of money held in notes of Rs.500 and Rs.1,000 was worthless overnight . In one impetuous decision, the Prime Minister has shattered the faith and confidence that hundreds of millions of Indians had reposed in the Government of India to protect them and their money.
The Prime Minister in his address to the nation said, “there comes a time in the history of a country's development when a need is felt for a strong and decisive step,” and propounded two primary reasons for this decision. One was to check “enemies from across the border… using fake currency notes”. The other was to “break the grip of corruption and black money”.
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Both these intentions are honourable and deserve to be supported whole-heartedly. Counterfeit currency and black money are as grave a threat to the idea of India as terrorism and social division. They deserve to be extinguished using all the firepower at our disposal. However, the popular saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” serves as a useful reminder and warning in this context.
The underlying premise behind the decision of the Prime Minister to render Rs.500 and Rs.1,000 currencies as illegal overnight seems to be this false notion that ‘all cash is black money and all black money is in cash’. This is far from reality. Let us understand why.
Life thrown into disarray
More than 90 per cent of India’s workforce still earn their wages in cash. These consist of hundreds of millions of agriculture workers, construction workers and so on. While the number of bank branches in rural areas have nearly doubled since 2001, there are still more than 600 million Indians who live in a town or village with no bank. Cash is the bedrock of the lives of these people. Their daily subsistence depends on their cash being accepted as a medium of valid currency. They save their money in cash which, as it grows, is stored in denominations of Rs.500 and Rs.1,000 notes. To tarnish these as ‘black money’ and throw the lives of these hundreds of millions of poor people in disarray is a mammoth tragedy. The vast majority of Indians earn in cash, transact in cash and save in cash, all legitimately. It is the fundamental duty of a democratically elected government in any sovereign nation to protect the rights and livelihood of its citizens. The recent decision by the Prime Minister is a travesty of this fundamental duty.
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Black money in India is a genuine concern. This is wealth that has been accumulated over years by those with unaccounted sources of income. Unlike the poor, holders of black money have access to various forms of wealth such as land, gold, foreign exchange, etc. There have been various attempts by many governments in the past decades to recover this illicit wealth through actions by the Income Tax department, the Enforcement Directorate and schemes such as Voluntary Disclosure. These measures were targeted strikes at only those suspected to be holders of such unaccounted wealth, not on all citizens. Evidence from these past attempts has shown that a large majority of this unaccounted wealth is not stored in the form of cash. All black money is not in cash, only a tiny fraction is. Against this backdrop, the decision by the Prime Minister is bound to have obverse implications by causing grievous injury to the honest Indian who earns his/her wages in cash and a mere rap on the knuckles to the dishonest black money hoarder. To make it worse, the government has actually made it easier to generate such unaccounted wealth in the future by the introduction of a Rs.2,000 note. This brazen policy measure has neither tackled the stock of black money holistically nor has it stemmed the flow of it.
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It is no surprise that the logistical challenge of replacing billions of old currency notes with new ones is a monumental one. It is a huge challenge in most nations, and in a country as vast and diverse as India it was bound to be doubly so. This is also one reason why most nations that have undertaken such currency swap operations have done so over a certain time period and not as a sudden overnight operation. It is heartbreaking to see and hear of millions of poor Indians standing in long lines to withdraw some money for basic sustenance. As someone who has experienced long lines for rationed food during war time, I never imagined that one day I would find my own countrymen and women waiting endlessly for rationed money. That all of this suffering is due to one hasty decision makes it even more disconcerting.
The macroeconomic impact of this decision of the government is likely to be hazardous. At a time when India’s trade numbers are at multi-year lows, industrial production is shrinking and job creation is anaemic, this policy can act as a negative shock to the economy. It is indeed true that India’s cash to GDP ratio is very high vis-à-vis other nations. But this is also an indicator of the Indian economy’s dependence on cash. Consumer confidence is an important economic variable in a nation’s growth prospects. It is now evident that this sudden overnight ban on currency has dented the confidence of hundreds of millions of Indian consumers, which can have severe economic ramifications. The scars of an overnight depletion of the honest wealth of a vast majority of Indians combined with their ordeal of rationed access to new currency will be too deep to heal quickly. This can have ripple effects on GDP growth and job creation. It is my humble opinion that we as a nation should brace ourselves for a tough period over the coming months, needlessly so.
Black money is a menace to our society that we need to eliminate. In doing so, we have to be mindful of the potential impact on hundreds of millions of other honest citizens. It may be tempting and self-fulfilling to believe that one has all the solutions and previous governments were merely lackadaisical in their attempts to curb black money. It is not so. Leaders and governments have to care for their weak and at no point can they abdicate this responsibility. Most policy decisions carry risks of unintended consequences. It is important to deftly balance these risks with the potential benefits of such decisions. Waging a war on black money may sound enticing. But it cannot entail even a single loss of life of an honest Indian.
Dr. Manmohan Singh was Prime Minister of India from 2004 to 2014.