For Demonetisation to Work, Modi Must Root Out Political and Bureaucratic Corruption

Without follow-up measures, it will be difficult for Modi to counter the charge that demonetisation is meant to serve a narrower political and personal agenda.

People queue at windows of a post office to deposit or exchange their old high denomination banknotes in Lucknow, India, November 16, 2016. Credit: Pawan Kumar/Reuters

People queue at windows of a post office to deposit or exchange their old high denomination banknotes in Lucknow, India, November 16, 2016. Credit: Pawan Kumar/Reuters

Even former prime minister Manmohan Singh, speaking in Rajya Sabha during the debate on demonetisation, admitted that its objectives were worthy of universal support. Moreover, people queuing up in front of banks for hours and 90% of those responding to Prime Minister Modi’s online survey have unequivocally supported the measure. This should have put to rest any doubts about the mass appeal of this measure. This near universal positive perception could, however, be based on a misperception of possible macroeconomic outcomes from demonetisation. Being undoubtedly the largest such exercise in the world,  it has even drawn in international experts like Kenneth Rogoff and Larry Summers into the fray.

This is, therefore, an appropriate time to take stock of the on-going demonetisation.

The worst outcome of demonetisation, which has sucked out 86% the total currency in circulation, could be that the cash crunch will kill those units operating  in the informal sector, which work predominantly or exclusively with cash. The liquidity shortage could fatally affect both their input supplies and/or revenue flows. Added to the mayhem in the informal sector, farmers could be in severe distress if they can’t sell their kharif harvest because of the cash shortage and as a consequence, be short of necessary agro-inputs for sowing rabi crops. The real estate sector will suffer from a  precipitous fall in speculative and investment demand due to the attack on black money. And to top it all, consumption demand could collapse dramatically as consumption demand, especially ostentatious and luxury demand takes a big hit as a result of demonetisation. All these negative impacts could effectively bring all economic activity to a grinding halt for the next six months or longer. This nightmare scenario is reflected in the forecast by Ambit Capital that India’s GDP growth will halve to 3.5% in 2016-17 with the third and fourth quarters (September to March) recording only 0.5% growth. The slowdown will persist for the next two years, resulting undoubtedly in a resounding electoral defeat for Modi in 2019 general elections. According to these die-hard pessimists, Modi has dug his own political grave by implementing this measure. Has Modi been totally unaware of these grave downside risks when taking this step?

But Modi could have a different perspective. All informal sector enterprises essentially have some access to formal credit sources and only partially depend upon cash revenues for their survival. With more than 600 million account holders in the country, it is difficult to conceive of MSMEs depending exclusively on cash for their sustenance. For example MSME units, which provide nearly 45% of India’s exports, necessarily operate with credit and through the banking system. They will certainly not be harmed by demonetisation. Moreover, with the impending introduction of GST in the near future, a majority of MSME units are shifting  to the formal economy to be able to take advantage of tax credits. These informal sector units could also realistically hope to secure their material inputs on credit terms, especially in such difficult times.

Payday incoming

The crucial issue will be whether or not these informal sector enterprises are able to pay salaries to their employees in cash. An inability to do so, could result in acute and widespread deprivation and a backlash that could reverse the extant support for the move. The government must now urgently identify MSME clusters and export oriented units in labour-intensive sectors such as gems and jewellery, leather goods, garments, brassware and other handicrafts and ensure that their cash requirements for salary payments are fully met. This will prevent the ugly outcome of large numbers of workers in specific locations faced with extreme penury despite having toiled for a month and unable to access their legitimate salaries. If this impending salary crunch could be handled, a large majority of MSME enterprise could overcome the transient disruption and not suffer a mortal blow on their activity as the Cassandras forecast.

Farmers are not so badly affected. Nearly 80% of rural households do not operate with 500 and 1,000 currency notes for their day to day activities. A hundred rupees still goes a fair way in the rural economy. Further, almost the entire kharif harvest of paddy can be sold to at government procurement counters at officially announced minimum support prices. Sugarcane harvest is  sold to sugar mills and their revenues traditionally credited to the farmers’ bank accounts. From all reports so far, rabi sowing is on track because most if not all agro-inputs including tractors and harrows services are provided on 30-60 day credit. Temporary inconvenience yes, but there is no real economic distress in the agriculture sector. The only segment to suffer are the middlemen or the arthiyas, who have traditionally not only operated with cash but also generated large quantum of black incomes from their callous and age-old exploitation of Indian farmers.

Recent reports from the real estate sector are that demand has suddenly shot up with property developers obliging black money holders with back-dated purchases paid in ‘old currency’. This is surely an illegal blip in housing demand and the real estate sector will suffer from the loss of black incomes and cash shortages, However, it has also been evident during the last three years that the withdrawal of speculative demand has been confined to major metros and has not affected housing and real estate demand in tier one and tier two cities and towns. The demand for housing in these smaller urban centres has been buoyant and is expected to remain so in the coming period. The government can feasibly ratchet up its expenditure to boost real estate and housing demand and take advantage of its extensive linkages and multiplier impact to boost aggregate demand.

Incoming losses

This extreme downside risk to economic growth arising from demand weakness and supply side disruption  will unfold in the third and fourth quarters of the current financial year, 2016-17. According to Manmohan Singh, we could see a decline of 2% in GDP growth, which would then come in at 5.5% instead of 7.5% as generally estimate prior to demonetisation. Singh’s estimate of a decline in GDP growth would imply a one-off loss of nearly Rs 27 lakh crore to the economy. This will surely be accompanied by job losses across sectors but concentrated perhaps in real estate, wholesale and retail trade, production units in the informal sector and intermediate services like transport and logistics. These costs would be justified only if demonetisation is seen as the first step in eliminating the malignancy of black economy.

The government can try to minimise these losses by following some steps. It can stagger the period of using the old currency for a longer period and also for a larger number of users than permitted at present. The period for depositing the currency notes could be extended beyond December 31, to provide more time for residents in far-flung villages to deposit their holdings of old currency and relieve the current pressure on commercial bank branches. The government should actively consider steps to augment the supply of currency by importing it if necessary. They must rope in  various departments and agencies as distribution centres for the new currency, especially for its own employees and affiliated agencies. This opportunity could be used to accelerate the adoption of digital payment methods that are already in use. This could see India leapfrog other economies in the area of ‘fintech.’ Finally, it is surprising that there have been no arrests so far for people trying to spuriously exchange money or depositing huge amounts in Jan Dhan deposits. This needs to be reversed.

An upside scenario also deserves attention. Rather than result in a dead loss to the economy of 2% of GDP, demonetisation could actually yield a fairly strong fillip to economic activity. With commercial banks now flush with nearly Rs 6 lakh crore of additional deposits, short-term lending rates have already trended downwards rather sharply. It is true that a very large part of these deposits will be needed in due course to meet liquidity requirements, but some additionality in deposits is a near certainty. Lower interest rates on saving deposits will be followed by a reduction in lending rates on working capital loans immediately and term loans subsequently. A reduction in capital costs will help make Indian firms globally competitive.

More importantly, five structural changes that will boost GDP growth rates may well take place as a direct consequence of demonetisation. One, the currency preference of the general public will surely weaken after this event, thereby bringing down the currency to GDP ratio. This is high in India at 12% as compared to an average of 4-5% in other emerging economies and 7% in the US, notorious for its cash preference. This will reduce costs of currency printing and also reduce the space for black money. A related gain will be to eliminate counterfeit currency that has been used for financing terrorist and extremist organisations. Costs of producing the counterfeit currency will increase substantially.

Second, the move will provide  a strong fillip to digital payment methods. Given our (Indians) somewhat surprising affinity to and ability for adopting innovative practices, a shift is already underway and will most likely spread in double time. This will also hasten the adoption of Unified Payment Interface (UPI), promoted by the National Payment Corporation. UPI enables subscribers, at no extra cost, to digitally transfer (pay and receive) money from their deposits either to vendors and other individuals. With 26 commercial  banks already on board and the clear prospect of behemoths like SBI joining the platform, UPI could well help India surge ahead in the adoption of digital money. With Prime Minister Modi himself promoting its adoption in public rallies, this could see a very rapid adoption of digital cash transfers in keeping with greater penetration of smartphones and internet. The direct implication will be a further constriction of the space for black money and generation of parallel economy.

Third, it is estimated that up to Rs 4.5-5.0 lakh crore ($74 billion) may  not find its way back to the banking system. These estimate would change in light of the latest announcement by the government that black money hoarders would be permitted to hold on to 40% of their holdings in bank deposits with a lock-in period of three years and carrying zero interest. However, to the extent that some black currency will be ‘killed’, it will represent a windfall gain for the government as the liability represented by the quantum of ‘non-returned currency’ will be permanently extinguished. This could be used in several different ways to increase the fiscal space for the government for ramping up public expenditure and by the RBI to sharply cut interest rates.

Fourth, demonetisation also lower the price of urban land and real estate. In conjunction with lower costs of capital, this will ceteris paribus, encourage investment and switch the Indian growth story from its  dependence on domestic consumption to being investment driven. This would be far more sustainable and also more employment generating.

Finally, faced with the loss of domestic purchasing power, Indian entrepreneurs would be forced to look more actively and aggressively for export markets. India could enter a period in which the past trend of net exports being perpetually negative would be reversed and India’s presently measly share of 1.6% in global merchandise trade could rise. This would also contribute to the all-important task of generating employment in a country that will see the addition of at least one million new workers every month for the next fifteen years.

Like dominoes

All these five positive outcomes, however, depend crucially on whether this first step of demonetisation is followed by others that are aimed at rooting out political and bureaucratic corruption. These are the fountain-heads of black incomes and also quite often the principal cause of honest businessmen resorting to corrupt practices. The prime minister has, on several occasions assured on this count and one hopes that these assurances will be honoured. Some steps have already been implemented. These include, making the industrial licensing system more transparent and less discretionary; implementing the GST; linking bank accounts to Aadhaar; making Aadhaar and pan card numbers compulsory for large value purchases; the passing of Benami Property Act and its early implementation etc. All these will surely make the generation of black and illegal incomes more difficult in future and reduce the space and scope for the parallel economy.

One warning. The government has to ensure and assure the people that they will not be hounded and terrorised by the income tax bureaucracy that may see itself as having been doubly empowered. Some ominous signs of this ‘taxman’ overreach and  harassment are already visible. Apprehending culprits and money launderers will have to be done most cautiously and with due care for not harassing the professionals, common businessman, traders and entrepreneurs.  Prime Minister Modi must make it clear to the income tax officials that it is only a simple, rational and non-threatening tax process that engenders much-needed taxpayers’ confidence in the system. Taxpayer cooperation will  not be achieved through persistent threats of harassment and exploitation. I am afraid the income tax department has not so far covered itself with glory on this count. On the contrary, stories of their patently unacceptable boorish and downright inhuman behaviour during income tax ‘raids and searches’ are legion. This raid and seizure culture and practices must change if we are to become a civilised and honest society, which successfully eliminated the pernicious illegal economy.  

Simultaneously, measures will have to be initiated to roll back political corruption that generates black money. The principle cause for this is undoubtedly the need for slush funds for election campaign finance. Many solid suggestions to curb and root out the need for black money for financing election campaigns have been made including most recently by B J Panda, a BJD MP. The prime minister has all the wherewithal to implement this critical change as well. He has near total control over this own party; has a large majority in the Lok Sabha and the BJP could have a sizeable presence in the Rajya Sabha after the next round of provincial elections. Modi has also developed a strong direct connect with the people to whom he could appeal to overcome any political resistance to his proposals to make election campaign financing more transparent and accountable.

If these two critical steps of reigning in the income tax bureaucracy and cleansing the election campaign process are implemented, Modi will certainly usher in the golden period in India’s economic development. We will become attractive for both domestic and foreign investors with a relatively corruption free environment that offers predictability and accountability. It will provide the positive encouragement  for honest workers and professionals who will not see themselves as constantly lagging behind their corrupt peers. India could regain its ethical and moral elan. A golden period for the Indian economy could then ensue and see the economy achieve double-digit growth for a sustained period.

Without these follow-up measures, I am afraid, a great opportunity would have been wasted. It would then be difficult for Modi to counter the charge, currently being hurled at him by those who oppose this move, that demonetisation with all its attendant pains and disruptions was not undertaken for  serving national interest but instead to serve some narrower political and personal agenda. I am convinced that  Modi, who knows the score all too well, will not let the down the common Indian who has supported him despite the pain and inconvenience he has suffered in the wake of ‘currency surgical strike’ on 8/11.

The author is Founder Director at Pahle India Foundation and Senior Fellow CPR, Delhi.