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Friday, November 18, 2016

Currency shock, second part

Facebook and Twitter are apparently flooded with comments on the current anti-black money drive, some supporting it as blindly and vociferously as others are opposing it tooth and nail, but, though the blog counter keeps climbing as always, I have got only three people to write in rejoinders as yet! And I thought I was writing about something that touches everybody’s lives. Goes to show how painful most people find it to think and speak/write rationally and civilly, as opposed to screaming mindlessly…

There are two things that I want to add to what I have already written. Though the PM keeps murmuring ad nauseam that ‘ordinary and poor men’ are not being hurt, it’s only the dirty rich who are suffering, the mass media are either totally blind or else it must be accepted for a fact that no rich man has had reason to feel harassed. Tell me, how many tycoons, filmstars and cricket stars have you seen standing in queues before ATMs trying to withdraw a paltry few thousands over the last week, either with your own eyes or in the papers, the net or TV? What can you do with people who can stand under the blazing sun and chortle ‘What a lovely moonlit night!’? And what is all this about catching people with black money anyway?

Economic pundits differ greatly about the definition of black money – ask Google about it. But in order even to start finding and destroying or mopping up black money on a significant scale, the government must first decide on a working definition – and preferably get the permission of Parliament and the Supreme Court. They have never insisted that everybody who has an income must file a tax return every year throughout his working life. As things stand, only 3 per cent (or is it just one?) of the country’s population pays income tax, and they consist largely of salaried folks in the organized sector, besides a few corporate businessmen. I remember that back in 1991 I heard for the first time that we schoolteachers who also have ‘other sources’ of income must hereafter file returns on their own; their employers keeping tabs on their behalf and deducting tax at source would no longer be enough. I cannot speak for anybody else, but I have been filing returns, and paying taxes, ever since then: the practice remains unbroken though I have been self-employed for nearly fifteen years now.

But I know for a fact that a majority – maybe it’s the vast majority – of small and medium income earners in this country have never filed returns (I can personally think of lots of grocers and mishtiwallahs and small building- or labour-contractors and even doctors and teachers, especially in rural and semi-urban areas). If all income that is not declared to the tax authorities is black money, then most people, or at least a majority of them, deal in black all the time, all the money they have is ‘black’, though for a lot of them it might mean only a few tens of thousands a month! My driver in the early 2000s actually exclaimed ‘Why should you pay income tax? Isn’t it only film actors who do that?’ and I have satisfied myself that that is the attitude of a great many ordinary people. Besides, in how many places do you shop where they give you regular receipts as a rule?

So unless your real purpose is to harass a lot of perfectly ordinary and non-criminal people (and maybe shoot yourself in the foot by bringing economic growth to a grinding halt), you should first – and gradually – make arrangements so that every single income earner is persuaded to file returns. That, and not sudden demonetization, was the right way to begin. Do you have any idea how long that will take, and how difficult it is going to be? Imagine even explaining to a cattle-dealer in some remote village in Chattisgarh why he must file income tax returns, and how! And is the IT department ready to handle a sudden tenfold increase in the number of files it is called to deal with?

Next, if you really want to get the majority of people into the white economy, you must persuade them that paying taxes is good for them, not only because it is easy and not too heavy a burden, but they are helping the nation to progress in ways that they can see and benefit from. Any government which is visibly working hard to deliver basic everyday essentials – water, sanitation and sewerage, roads, lights, houses, schools and medical care – finds it much easier to do that than one which merely spends millions on advertizing that happy days are just round the corner. Likewise, any government which keeps taxes light finds it easier to collect. Under India’s tax regime, you are punished if you declare income honestly: that needs to change, and at once. If I had my way, income up to Rs. 50,000 a month in cities for self-employed people with families should be tax free, income upto a lakh a month should be liable to just 5% tax, upto three lakhs a month, 10% and so on. If a 30% tax rate is to be applied at all, let that fall only upon those who earn more than a crore a year. Isn’t that much fairer for all concerned? If such a system is applied sternly without fear or favour, it is virtually certain that overall tax collections are going to swell enormously. Does the government want that, or not?

Whereas it seems to me that the entire target seems to be the middle class (by which I mean all those whose family incomes are between one and twenty lakhs a month). It looks as if creating a big sensation by harassing them was the real purpose – heaven knows why. Look at this declaration of the government that those who are depositing upto Rs. 250,000 at a time in old big notes with the banks will not be ‘scrutinized’ by the taxmen. How ridiculous! Consider a man who has declared an income of Rs. 40 lakhs: he obviously must keep depositing more than that paltry amount many times a year, mustn’t he? So the above-mentioned warning means that even if all his money is white, hard-earned money, he may be bothered by tax officials if he deposits more than Rs. 2.5 lakhs in November and December this year. Is that a way to draw out black money, or one designed to drive even more people under the scanner?

And meanwhile there are tycoons who are merrily marrying off their children with lavish do-s costing tens, even hundreds of crores, apparently cocking a snook at all the powers that be. Am I to assume that in a country where a person who earns more than ten lakhs a year is officially considered ‘rich’, such people have ‘earned’ those zillions honestly, declared them in full to the tax authorities, and are now spending it all in white? Here’s a thought: why didn’t the government first go for all those who have bought Rs. 50-lakh-plus cars and Rs. 5 crore-plus penthouses and gone holidaying to seven-star resorts within the last ten years? And why not after the temples which routinely take in crores of rupees every day from devotees, and are well known to have stashes of cash and gold to the tune of tens, even hundreds of lakh crore rupees? Something is rotten in the state of India, and even more so with those few thousand zealots around the country who are praising the government to high heavens on the social media for seriously going after the seriously rich … to be blind is bad, to be blind and stupid is worse, but to be blind, stupid and bloody-minded really takes the cake.

P.S., Nov. 21: I should like to leave a link here to this open letter signed by a number of eminent citizens, dated Nov. 16, and to this editorial in my newspaper today, because they broadly share my standpoint. If and when this whole exercise turns out to be a damp squib achieved at enormous national cost, and the government has a lot of egg on the face, my readers should remember that I told them so. If it turns out the other way, I shall certainly praise this government fulsomely.

P.P.S., Nov. 26: Just to put things on record, for my own future reference if nothing else: Dr. Manmohan Singh has called the process a 'monumental management failure' and 'a case of organised loot and legalized plunder'; Amartya Sen has said 'at one stroke it has declared all Indians, indeed all holders of Indian currency, as possibly crooks, unless they can establish they are not', and that 'only an authoritarian government can calmly cause such misery to the people', while Mamata Banerjee has, quite rightly, I believe, taken strong objection to the PM posing as the only saint in the country, and calling everybody who does not agree with him a crook. I shall be very curious to know where the BJP itself got the money to fight and win the last Lok Sabha elections, and how much of it was white. 


Ritambhar said...

Respected Sir,

You're absolutely right in stating that demonetization is a powerful subject, which should prompt rational commentators put forth their arguments on both sides of the divide. I can say that I am an ardent supporter of this move only for the logic I can discern, without being swayed by passionate comments on Modi's chutzpah.

I would put forward the following defense of the move:

1) What prevents the socio-economic ecosystem to revert to 'black money' hoarding and transacting practices after the initial shock is over? - Honestly, this one move is not the complete solution. But a start had to be made and subsequent executive decisions and legislation like the upcoming 'Real Estate Bill' must continue plugging loopholes and creating effective deterrents on black transactions and tax evasion. Let's give the PM a decent run before concluding on his effectiveness (or ineffectiveness thereof). In any case, we have all seen the performance of previous governments

2) Why this sensationalism? - Nothing apart from 'shock and awe' could have worked in putting some amount of healthy fear in the populace. We can always argue that the implementation could have been more effective, such as preparing the banking infrastructure prior to this onslaught and ensuring sufficient availability of lower-denomination currency. That could have happened only at the cost of absolute secrecy

3) Is the collateral damage of commoners suffering really worth the benefits? - This has really been an area of failure. Just ensuring availability of Rs. 500 notes before Rs. 1000 may have altered the ground situation somewhat. But the fact remains that replacing the now invalidated 86% of notes is herculean effort and the PM's rhetoric about everything being ok after 50 days sounds hollow. It appears to be that the PM trusted nobody before announcing this decision and hence, people tasked with making the move effective are now only being reactive rather than proactive

4) What about targeting the rich? Are they really perturbed? - There are already scenes around the country of burning defunct notes and politicians being caught (one recent report in Maharashtra) with stashes of cash in old notes. I am sure some more will be nabbed by the taxmen in coming days once the ongoing transactions are analyzed. I fully agree that the 'cash' component of unaccounted wealth is only a fraction of the wealth stashed in offshore accounts and other places. As I said, this one step is just the beginning. It will only be successful through proper implementation of demonetization and subsequent executive decisions

Admittedly, Modi appears to be going after easy prey in order to widen the tax net and not really targeting the high net-worth individuals. Also, India cannot turn into a digital economy overnight and the process of turning into one involves large-scale modernization of the rural economy, which is not easy at all. Only time will tell whether this was just rhetoric and lacked intent - my only humble submission is that criticism of the move is premature, hence unwarranted. A politician will always indulge is some rhetoric. I trust that even if Modi is 20% substance, he will be our most successful and effective PM.

Ritambhar (ICSE '97)

Abhishek Anand said...

Dear Ritambhar da,

I belong to the 2014 ICSE batch.I would also like to tell that while you are an ardent supporter of this demonetization move, I am an ardent support of the Indian Right and therefore, it's easy to guess that at least ideologically, there is only one political party in the country to which I could be inclined. So, I shall certainly not criticize this government just for the sake of it.

First of all, there is no doubt that this is a very brave move and we may call it the first of the many steps that are needed to curb the menace of black money. However, was there nothing better to start with? Kindly consider: recent estimates suggest that only 6% of the total black money is hoarded in the form of hard cash. Besides, the RBI says that only 53% Indians have bank accounts and over 300 million Indians do not have a government ID. What about them? So, while we all agree that this is a start, we must also ask if it is a good start.

Secondly, both the Calcutta High Court and the Supreme Court have noted that there are loopholes in the implementation of this drive. The relaxed norms for farmers and small traders as well as the decision to use indelible inks could have been announced earlier if the government was better prepared to launch this drive.

Finally, I agree that it's still early to judge whether or not this move was a success(with respect to its targets, of course). But as a supporter who doesn't want to be blind, I feel I should raise questions if they are valid. The government is constantly ignoring the aforementioned questions.Should it not answer them if the 'poor is happy and the rich is suffering'.

Abhishek Anand said...

Respected Sir,

Although it is slightly out of context here, I must say that I can't express in words how good it felt to read that "such a young man too" in your reply to my previous comment. It' s the first time that someone has called me a 'man'!

I still can't figure out the reason behind this drastic decision taken by the government if it is not going achieve its targets. Why would a government that enjoyed at least average ratings half way through its term go for something so dangerous? The PM had toured almost the entire globe praising India's 7%+ growth rate, the investment cycle had improved, inflation was under control and the government had maintained a relatively clean image with no major scam being in the news off late. Not only will this demonetizaion drive significantly disrupt economic activities, at least in the short term, but it will also almost certainly lead to delay in the roll-out of the Goods and Services Tax. As days pass by, inconvenience in the public is only going to rise further. So, what compelled the PM to take such a big step? Is there anything on earth that is more important to a Prime Minister than ensuring his party's return to power? I can lay my bet on two possibilities:
a) The government believes that while the general inconvenience that people are facing will soon thin out and the short term damage done to the economy will be minimum, the electorate will bear in mind that the Prime Minister at least acted against corruption. This feeling will resonate among the voters every time they use the new notes. However, if we are to believe this, the follow-up steps that the government takes after 30th December will be crucial.
b) The few in the government aware of the drive had grossly misjudged the magnanimity of this task and of course, a rollback is not an option politically permissible.
However, could a politician as seasoned as Narendra Modi have taken such a drastic step without being sure of its consequences? I feel we are missing something here.

Besides, if high value notes lead to corruption and people are having a really hard time in using the 2000 rupee notes, why had the RBI recommended the issue of 10,000 rupee notes? Would that not have compounded the problem beyond control? I am at my wits' end.

The various interviews that have featured the Finance Minister over the past week suggest that the government broadly has four defences:
1)The black money problem won't return so easily as current tax rates do not provide as much reason to hoard hard cash as they did in the 1970s and 80s, the period to which the roots of this problem can be traced. Besides, GST will make the creation of black money more difficult and the new pan-card requirements will make tax evasion more difficult.
2)The cash deposited in the banks in the past few days will significantly ease the banks' condition. An increase in the capacity of the banks to lend will boost growth. Also, inflation will significantly come down and the sharp decline in real estate prices will boost the government's "Housing for All Scheme by 2022".
3) This is just the beginning. We shall soon follow it up targeting gold and other real assets
4) We have taken action on the 'Mauritius Route' through which black money leaves India and have enacted a very stringent law against black money. Besides, 2017 onward, foreign banks will be compelled to share the details of their Indian account holders with us. We'll thus bring black money stashed abroad back.
How far can we trust these words?

Finally, I believe that every crisis bring an opportunity with itself(just as the near financial crisis of 1990 led to far reaching economic reforms). If the government is truly determined to make a difference, it should make the most of these two months to propel as much of the country towards cashless transactions as possible. That might not be enough, but that will certainly be significant.

Yours faithfully,
Abhishek Anand

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Hello Ritambhar,

Thanks for commenting. Good to know that old boys are still reading my blog, though they rarely bother to comment!

But the comment does make me sad, for a lot of reasons. I shall only mention a few here:

1) For no real reason that I can see, at least fifty people have lost their lives in the frenzy over exchanging notes, and the number is increasing every day. And the harassment suffered by tens of millions, even if they have not died or lost limbs, is not something I can call an acceptable level of collateral damage. I am thinking of an old boy working for SBI, who has been putting in 14-hour days continuously for ten days now. I challenge anybody who has lost a father or son in the process to say 'One must accept a little suffering'. As my favourite philosopher said, human beings have an enormous capacity for tolerating suffering, as long as it is other people's.

2) The fact that some people have burnt large stashes of big notes only goes to underscore my point: the big rich just don't care. A few crores, or even tens of crores, is loose change to them, and they know they will make up for it very soon again. And do you seriously think that all government employees will stop taking bribes because of this move?

3) Mere one-time demonetization will do virtually nothing to squeeze the black economy, as long as some of the major, rational, tough, long-term steps that I have mentioned in my last two posts are not taken alongwith, which the government hasn't even talked about doing. If and when they do, I shall laud them for it, but I shall not praise to high heavens somebody swatting a mosquito off my face while an elephant is sitting on my chest. Meanwhile, I shall continue to maintain that this is a gigantic and very costly eyewash, which could even boomerang sooner or later.

4) As for the contention that this move is going to quickly shove India into the cashless age, it can only come from people who have never spent a month outside a metro city. This link (http://bit.ly/2faJXuP) shows what a very, very large number of Indians are really like. I don't think I need to add a comment.

5) Your last sentence leaves me speechless. One does not argue with anybody who is determinedly unaware of history. I only reminded myself that we are living in an age when a person can win a Nobel Prize without doing anything at all, so yes, why not?

Shilpi said...

Suvro da, Thank you for writing this second part. The illuminating part for me especially was what you write about the nature of ‘black money’, what that really means in a country such as ours and about the tax increments. If people read that carefully – they cannot continue to believe that the government is intent on catching the seriously rich criminals and curbing the flow of black money. I’d been scratching my head over the real intention of the government. It’s the ordinary and non-criminal people and those with the few thousands or few lakhs who are the ones who are going and depositing their money in the banks. I won’t say much about the fancy idea of making India a cashless economy (you’ve covered it) but why on earth would a 2000 rupee note be released then? This makes even less sense.

One of the floating statements is that too many banks had given out too many bad loans and the government needed to fill the coffers quickly. If that is the real intention, the PM couldn’t announce that and insist people hand in their money and Modi probably knew that very large numbers of ordinary and non-criminal folks would not only be queuing up to hand in the cash if he talked of lofty reasons such as demonetization and black money and strangling terrorism all in one swift stroke but that a great lot of them would be applauding him. Maybe this is what he was banking on. Given that some silly news reports keep insisting that it is so lovely that the country has come together in queues and people are sharing pens, bottles of water and conversations – rich and poor and everyone standing shoulder-to-shoulder and fighting corruption and given how so many people around the country believe that the government is interested in nabbing the big hoarders and dealers of black money and curbing the flow of black money – maybe it’s worked a bit for now.

If the real intention was to fill up the banks with cash deposits from ordinary citizens, I don’t see why the PM couldn’t have planned the whole move so as not to cause distress to ordinary and non-criminal people. And I too couldn’t help feel that the people who are so happily claiming that it’s all for the ‘greater good’ would have been singing something different if they were the ones running around because of some medical emergency or if they lost someone in this mess. Even with my blinders I can’t see why people who are so thrilled with this move are so delighted in seeing small businessmen, grocers, fish mongers, daily labourers and slum dwellers being harassed. Do they know how difficult it can be sometimes to open a bank account even when one isn’t dishonest? Do those supporters really think that these are the ones who need to be monitored very closely? And don’t they know at all what the seriously rich people do with their black money?

I am reminded of the Anna Hazare anti-corruption debacle and the millions of gung-ho supporters. Your statement about the ‘moonlit night’ reminded me of the Thomas Theorem, which says: if men define a situation as real – it becomes real in its consequences. The real intentions of the government do not matter to many people. They have been told that the reason for demonetization is to curb the flow of black money and halt terrorism. So masses of people can go about feeling very pleased with themselves thinking they are playing important roles in this ‘bold move’. I’m just plain relieved that there are voices which are claiming that this move is not to be hailed as something great and noble.

And here’s one link regarding what you said about government employees and bribes: http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/gujarat-govt-staff-caught-taking-rs-4-lakh-bribe-in-new-2000-rupee-notes/story-7QLUSRJCsCjtcmKCP5ex8I.html?utm_source=LI&utm_medium=most-popular

Your mosquito and elephant analogy and the tax matter being explained to a cattle-dealer in a Chattisgarh village made me chuckle despite the seriousness of your post.

Subhanjan Sengupta said...

Sir, I would like to add the following two points to this discussion:

a) This is a government that started with long-shot promises, but has been performing poorly (though I am one of those who agree change takes time, majority of those in this country who vote to elect governments are not that patient). Thus considering the fact that most agendas were not fulfilled substantially to create an impact, and had not achieved much substantially apart from being just examples of viral marketing campaigns at gigantic cost (see Swaach Bharat Abhiyan, NSDC, Digital India, Clean Ganga), this was a dramatic gimmick to grab back the attention of people; either people will hate him or applaud him. At least, people will remember him. Let us not forget that he is a very image conscious man. I am not sure how development oriented and political he actually is. If we observe carefully, the identity of BJP is nowhere today. What is BJP without him today?

b) It is in fact very strange that while it is obvious for a PM to know that there is a large population in India which belongs to the agrarian economy, and that leaving aside the political and farming corruption, the ease of functioning for a rural household, or micro and small entrepreneurs, is primarily cash dealings, why did he take such a daring step! It is indeed very strange. I still can not find a convincing answer. The very people he had asked for votes once by travelling across the length and breadth of the country, has been put in a difficult situation today. I have come across so many in the past few days who regret voting for him. I am sure he knew this would happen. He is too clever to foresee this. It is very obvious. The question is, why did he do this? The answers are not as simple as killing black money, or stalling terrorism. The agenda must be something really big, which we can not yet see. What can it possibly be?

Rangan Sarkar said...

Respected Sir,
It is true that the move has harassed the commoners but Sir, don't you think that the idea has to be appreciated. Many people were caught red handed.If the move had not been put into action then perhaps they would have been spared. I too admit that the number of disadvantages are more than the number of advantages but I believe that the move has atleast something in it. Is the Indian PM so dumb that he will introduce such a move without thinking about it's consequences? I don't think so but if it is so I doubt India will one day be a "developed" country.

Rangan Sarkar
ICSE 2017

Suvro Chatterjee said...


I have expressed the same curiosity myself. Part of the motive is definitely to get a big short-term advantage over the opposition in the coming elections in various states, partly it is to give a big boost to the banking industry, which - thanks to its monstrous burden of bad loans - was in very bad shape for a long time for lack of capital, and is now suddenly flush with funds (believe it or not, my bank is so desperate for custom that they are offering me - a mere private tutor - a loan big enough to buy a low end Mercedes!), partly it is to give a huge fillip to the whole IT/debit card/credit card/electronic wallet industry, and partly a pipe dream that India can suddenly be turned into a Singapore or Japan. What else might be part of their game plan, I am yet to find out, but the PM's three professed aims are almost definitely least important to him.


Thanks for writing. Here is my answer:

1) No one, including me, has ever denied that 'the idea has to be appreciated'. The idea is not at issue here, the mode of implementation is.

2) If you have read this post and the previous one closely - as I demand they should be read - you will see that there is ever increasing reason to suspect the motives of the government, and no doubt at all that the whole thing is being handled in a very slow, clumsy and inefficient manner, causing needless and in some cases extreme harassment to millions of innocent people.

3) Look up the links I have provided today in the P.P.S. Anybody who still continues to support this move after that is not one to listen to fact and reason, so I shall not waste my time debating with him.

Remember what I said in the last class: I try to teach people how to think, and how to form sane opinions. I am always sad to see where I have not succeeded.


Saikat Chakraborty said...

Dear Sir,

Your current posts and the recent news reminded me of this one (http://suvrobemused.blogspot.in/2014/06/tough-steps-in-offing.html) and how you had forewarned about the ‘tough steps’ by government. Also, you had lauded the increase in railway fares and so your criticism of the current move by the government is not biased. Unfortunately, such is not the case with many from abusive trolls to economists, journalists to students.

From what I read and interpret, here are my thoughts-
•If anecdotes are to be believed, Modi’s functional style as Gujarat CM was exactly the same- decisions were taken single-handedly by him and others had to toe the line and assist in hailing his policies and/or clearing up the mess hence created. The problem now is that it is a larger playing field and the mess is huge.
•There has been such an over-reliance on rhetoric from the cow-vigilantes to Dalit atrocities and now demonetization- our PM never addresses the core issues, evades Parliamentary debates (as is happening now) but speaks through other platforms (radio, televised speeches, rallies, tweets and idiotic apps). While these are necessary for a politician, I wonder why traditional methods of discourse, especially when one is also an administrator, are being phased away without objections. But Modi is successful in using this to his advantage and also there is no one right now to challenge him on a national level.
•Recently, Modi also added the phrase ‘minimum of’ 50 days whereas earlier he asked citizens to bear the trouble only for 50 days. And the truth is far from reality and this interview by the former finance minister presents some cold facts- http://m.indiatoday.in/video/demonetisation-black-money-chidambaram-modi-congress/1/812599.html.
•We hear that new notes will be available in select petrol pumps and farmers will be allowed to buy seeds with old notes and then suddenly there are announcements of no exchange of old notes over bank counters. Along with unpreparedness, this attitude of our PM is probably contributing to all the confusions.
•As to why such a step was taken, I cannot think of any reasons other than what have already been discussed. Maybe Modi dreams of a legacy like Lee Kuan Yew but unfortunately, he was born in a democracy and hence cannot carry out draconian measures to full extent. Solving cash crunch in banks by this fashion cannot be a long-term plan nor is this going to extinguish the problem of black money. Most of the large scale corruptions in telecommunication, oil or defense deals are cashless, kickbacks take place in multiple ways which are outside the legal purview of Indian government- so I don’t know how this move will help in future. As for uncovering black money now, the much needed long-term policies that you wrote is not something any government would want to do.

Finally, I do hope that conditions become better and the suffering of the under-privileged reduces soon, at least from the part due to this extra, new burden. On that note, this deserves a read- http://www.anandabazar.com/editorial/demonetization-and-it-undeniable-effects-all-over-the-country-people-1.519033.

Subhanjan Sengupta said...


It occurred to me in one of my thought trials that what if one of his prime objectives is to come up in the upcoming budget with this statement that all the black money that got pumped into the system would now be used for greater good; for instance, the Krishi Sinchai Yojana or Garib Kalyan Yojana! The poor, eventually, will form this opinion that he has socio-economically mobilized them by bringing down the rich (and surely they would not be even minimally aware of the fact that the black money in something known as "Swiss accounts" never came back). It would thus, again, be a sweeping victory for him in the elections. If my hypothesis is proved true, I am not sure whether that would be good news or otherwise.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Could be, Subhanjan, could be. Easier to believe than that the PM would be deliberately committing political suicide. Question is, if that is his intention, why should he stay mum about it for so long?

Aritra Roy said...


I came across the below link and it explains why majority do not see any problem in this demonetization issue.