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Analysis

Demonetisation: Most reactionary and illogical policy ever

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(‘Note-Bandi: Demonetisation and India’s Elusive Chase for Black Money’ is an upcoming book from Oxford University Press dedicated to the “memory of Indian citizens who lost their lives due to demonetisation”). Excerpts from the preface by R. Ramakumar.

‘Demonetisation’– the withdrawal of legal tender status of notes of denomination Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 — announced by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi over a televised address on 8 November 2016 will go down in history as one of the most reactionary and illogical economic policies ever attempted in independent India.

It crippled an economy that ran on cash and was plagued by a slowdown; it destroyed the livelihoods of millions of farmers, workers, traders, women and the elderly; and it violated the dignity and liberty of law-abiding citizens.

Yet, in a post-truth world, demonetisation also left public opinion in India deeply polarised. The language of the state had a deceptive appeal. In a society marked by abject poverty and inequality, and where everyday lives of citizens are marred by myriad forms of corruption, it came as no surprise that Modi’s misadventure was received as a decisive measure.

Economists like me knew of the earlier demonetisation of 1978. But we also knew that it had failed to unearth any significant amount of black money. We were also aware of quack ideologues of the right-wing who demanded measures like demonetisation and the substitution of income tax with a blanket transactions tax. But we had also dismissed them as obscurantist drivel.

Never did one imagine that one among these irrational ideas would actually find a place in economic policy. Of course, many aspects of neoliberal economics are intrinsically inverted on logic. But the demonetisation of 2016 beat them all.

***
In his address to the nation, Modi made two major claims in defence of demonetisation: on the one hand, it would stamp out counterfeit currency that was aiding terrorism; on the other, it would help the government unearth ‘black money’. Soon after the address, one also heard television commentators waxing eloquent on India’s imminent embrace of a cashless economy.

***
First, the claim that demonetisation would hit terror financing was overstretched because the total circulation of counterfeit currency did not exceed 0.002 per cent of the total notes in circulation. Second, no significant mobilisation of black money may be expected, as about 94 per cent of the unaccounted wealth was stored in the form of non-cash assets. Third, a cashless economy can never be created over diktats, as the persistence of cash was a structural feature of the economy.

What India needed was a structural transformation of its informal economy into a modern and productive sphere, which would systemically reduce the dependence on cash. A ‘war on cash’ would thus be ineffective and premature. Sycophants apart, these views were also shared by economists across the Left-Right spectrum.

***
First, according to the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) Annual Report for 2016-17, the total value of counterfeit notes of denomination Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 detected by banks rose from Rs 27.4 crore in 2015-16 to Rs 40.8 crore in 2016-17: an increase by just about Rs 14 crore. As a share of the value of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes in circulation in November 2016, the value of counterfeit notes detected in 2016-17 amounted to just 0.0027 per cent. The critics were right; the extent of circulation of counterfeit notes did not, in any way, justify a drastic action like demonetisation.

Second, the RBI also released estimates of the value of old notes returned to the banks between 10 November 2016 and 30 June 2017. Out of the Rs 15.44 lakh crore worth notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 in circulation as on 8 November 2016, about Rs 15.28 lakh crore had returned to the banks. In other words, 98.96 per cent of the demonetised notes were back in the banks and only 1.04 per cent remained outside. The return of about 99 per cent of the demonetised notes is the most important indicator of the failure of demonetisation.

In December 2016, the Attorney-General of India, Mukul Rohatgi, had informed the Supreme Court that the government did not expect more than Rs 12 lakh crore to be back in the banks. The remaining Rs 3 lakh crore was black money, which would not return to the banks and could be ‘extinguished’ and passed on by the RBI to the government as dividend.

Red-faced, the government tried to contain the damage by claiming that demonetisation was intended to bring back all cash into the formal banking system. But in the public eye, the jury was no more out. There was no black money left to be ‘extinguished’.

Third, the Central Statistics Office (CSO) releases quarterly estimates of gross value added (GVA). As chapters in this volume would argue, these estimates typically underestimate changes in the informal sector. Yet, despite methodological infirmities, on a year-to-year basis, the growth rate of GVA showed a decline from 7.6 per cent in the first quarter (Q1) of 2016-17 to 5.6 per cent in the Q1 of 2017-18. This decline was in continuation of a similar decline reported for the fourth quarter (Q4) of 2016-17. The CSO estimates have officially signalled that demonetisation was instrumental in intensifying recessionary tendencies in the Indian economy.

* * *
Stung by the estimates released by the RBI and the CSO, the Modi government tried to initiate a campaign to celebrate the ‘success’ of demonetisation in August-September 2017. This campaign made three major claims. First, demonetisation resulted in the ‘highest ever black money detection’. Black money worth Rs 16,000 crore (i.e., the remaining 1.04 per cent of Rs 15.44 lakh crore) did not return to the banking system.

Second, there was an ‘unprecedented increase in tax compliance’ after demonetisation. About 56 lakh taxpayers were newly added and the number of tax returns filed rose by 24.7 per cent in 2017-18 over 2016-17. Third, digital banking grew rapidly after November 2016. The number of digital transactions rose by 56 per cent between October 2016 and May 2017.

All the three claims were false. Papers in this volume provide a comprehensive coverage in this regard.

First, the claim of detection of Rs 16,000 crore was actually an admission of failure, because the very premise of demonetisation was the existence of at least Rs 3 lakh crore as black money. In fact, the costs of demonetisation hugely outrun its benefits.

One, even if we assume, conservatively, that India’s GVA shrank by 1 per cent after November 2016, the resulting economic loss would be about Rs 1.5 lakh crore.

Two, due to demonetisation, banks were inundated with new deposits worth lakhs of crores while credit outflows largely stagnated. As a result, the RBI had to mop up excess liquidity worth Rs 10.1 lakh crore from banks under the Market Stabilisation Scheme (MSS). The total interest outgo of the RBI on this count alone was Rs 5,700 crore.

Three, the RBI’s costs incurred for printing new notes rose from Rs 3,420 crore in 2015-16 to Rs 7,965 crore in 2016-17: a rise by Rs 4,545 crore. These costs did not include intangibles, such as the time spent by bank staff on consumer interface and paperwork over many months.

Four, due to the higher costs incurred by the RBI under different heads, the total surplus transferred by the RBI to the government fell from Rs 65,876 crore in 2015-16 to Rs 30,659 crore in 2016-17: i.e., a decline of Rs 35,217 crore.

In sum, demonetisation was an extraordinarily loss-making proposition for the exchequer.

Second, the claim of rise in tax compliance after demonetisation is simply unimpressive.

One, there is nothing remarkable about the rise in the number of tax returns filed in 2017-18 compared to earlier years. Compared to the corresponding previous year, the rise in the number of tax returns filed was 51 per cent in 2013-14; 12.2 per cent in 2014-15; 29.9 per cent in 2015-16; and 24.3 per cent in 2016-17.3

Two, even among the 56 lakh assessees newly added, about 38.8 lakh assessees (or about 69.4 per cent) reported an annual income of less than Rs 5 lakh. The average annual income of these new taxpayers was only Rs 2.7 lakh. In sum, the increase in tax revenue from the new assessees would be insignificant.

Three, the claims of the government on the extent of spread of digital banking defy basic statistical logic. Analysis shows that, one, the percentage rise in the number of digital transactions were primarily owing to low base effects. Two, the total value of non-cash transactions rose by only 18.8 per cent between November 2016 and August 2017. Despite efforts to popularise mobile banking, the value and volume of mobile-based transactions recorded negative growth rates between November 2016 and August 2017.

All available evidence till August 2017 points to the return of cash in everyday transactions. The government’s aim of forcing citizens to shun cash had failed.

By : R. Ramakumar

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

(R. Ramakumar is Dean, Centre for Study of Developing Economies, School of Development Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He can be reached at [email protected])

Analysis

Blow to BJP ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha polls – News Analysis

In the first instance of a party getting majority on its own in 30 years, BJP won 282 seats in Lok Sabha in 2014. The BJP-led NDA had won 336 seats out of 543.

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Congress workers Karnataka civic polls

The results in the Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan came as a major shock for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has won all the major states barring Delhi, Bihar, Punjab and Karnataka in elections held after the sweeping 2014 Lok Sabha victory.

The BJP was routed in Chhattisgarh and defeated in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh in closely-fought contests. The party mostly banked on the image of Chief Ministers Raman Singh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan to lift the party’s fortunes.

In Rajasthan, where opinion polls had written off the BJP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah put in extra efforts, besides banking on the hardcore Hindutva image of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, to take the battle to the Congress, but still lost.

The BJP, however, managed to open its account in Mizoram, where the Mizo National Front (MNF) ousted the ruling Congress partty, but saw its numbers fall from five to one in Telangana, where the Telangana Rashtra Samithi swept the polls.

The results of these five states, which were dubbed the semifinals ahead of the next general elections in April-May 2019, could be a factor in the battle between the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the Congress-led opposition.

The major issues raked up by Congress, specially the farm loan waiver amid an agrarian crisis across the country, employment and anger among upper caste, seems to have worked in its favour and could haunt the ruling dispensation if remedial measures are not taken.

The BJP is not ready, however, to accept the defeat as a referendum on the Modi government.

Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said issues in state elections are entirely different. The BJP won Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh in 2003 but lost the Lok sabha elections next year, he pointed out.

The general elections in 2019, he added, would be fought around Modi’s performance, with people voting for a tried and tested leadership instead of a non-ideological opposition coalition which is bound to collapse sooner than later.

The Congress, which had a disastrous performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and suffered successive defeats in various Assembly elections, smiled for the first time after defeating the BJP in a direct contest in the three crucial states in north India.

Party president Rahul Gandhi, who campaigned vigorously, said the Assembly election results were a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s non-performance on issues of unemployment, agrarian distress, corruption and negating the ill-effects of demonetisation.

Out of total 678 Assembly seats in the five states in the current round of elections, the Congress has won close to 300 seats while the BJP managed to win over 200 seats. In the 2013 Assembly polls, the BJP had won 377 seats in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram while the Congress had won only 122 seats in these states.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP had won 62 out of total 83 Lok Sabha constituencies of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram. Now the three Hindi heartland states will be ruled by Congress and the its impact would definitely be felt in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

In the first instance of a party getting majority on its own in 30 years, BJP won 282 seats in Lok Sabha in 2014. The BJP-led NDA had won 336 seats out of 543.

Its allies include the Shiv Sena, which has been on the war path for a while. Similarly, N. Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) have walked out of the NDA.

Since 2014, BJP has managed to retain just six Lok Sabha seats in by-polls. It won Lakhimpur in Assam, Shahdol in Madhya Pradesh, Beed and Palghar in Maharashtra, Vadodara in Gujarat and Shimoga in Karnataka.

In the last four years, the party has lost Lok Sabha by polls in Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh, Gurdaspur in Punjab, Alwar and Ajmer in Rajasthan, Kairana, Phulpur and Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, Bhandara-Gondiya in Maharashtra and Bellary and Mandya constituencies in Karnataka.

The BJP, however, maintained the verdict was a mandate against the state governments and not against the Modi government.

“The results in five states clearly show there is no uniform trend across the country and local factors determined the outcome in each state. This is evident from the fact that even Congress suffered massive defeats in Mizoram and Telangana.

“Despite 15 years of anti-incumbancy in Madhya Pradesh, the BJP has put up a fight in Madhya Pradesh and has a major comeback in Rajasthan. The BJP’s and Congress’ vote share in both the states in Mandhya Pradesh and Rajasthan is almost tied which clearly show that the BJP has the potential to comeback with big victories in 2019 Lok Sabha polls,” BJP Spokeperson G.V. L. Narsimha Rao told IANS.

He also said whenever Congress has tied up with a regional party, it cost them votes.

(Brajendra Nath Singh can be contacted at [email protected])

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Analysis

Election losses in Hindi heartland worry BJP in UP

Is a question that is haunting many in the BJP. For a party that stormed to power after 16 years of political exile, the stunning 2017 Assembly victory is beginning to look like history.

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Modi Shah

Lucknow, Dec 12 : With three major states in the Hindi heartland slipping out of its hands, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is worried in Uttar Pradesh where even party insiders complain about poor governance and growing lawlessness.

“What if this repeats here too?” is a question that is haunting many in the BJP. For a party that stormed to power after 16 years of political exile, the stunning 2017 Assembly victory is beginning to look like history.

Barely a year-and-a-half later, the popularity ratings of the state government, specially Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, are worryingly down.

Many of his decisions, like renaming Faizabad to Ayodhya and Allahabad to Prayagraj and his use of acidic language, have soured his appeal, even among BJP supporters. BJP’s allies too are openly speaking against the way the state is run.

“There is a lot of corruption all round. Officials are not even listening to the Chief Minister’s directives,” said Om Prakash Rajbhar, who heads BJP ally Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP) and is a cabinet Minister.

A perpetual rebel who has often broken ranks with the ruling party, Rajbhar’s disillusionment, unlike that of others, is out in the open.

There are, however, many senior Ministers in the ruling party who complain in private over what they feel is the poor and lacklustre performance of the BJP government.

“The government is directionless and has failed to inspire confidence,” says a party veteran who taunts the party leadership for not meeting the people’s aspirations.

“We are bogged down by a haughty bureaucracy which refuses to fall in line. As a result, our party workers and supporters are disgruntled,” he added.

A BJP General Secretary is accused by a Minister of trying to corner major tenders in irrigation and PWD departments. The Minister moaned that party leaders failed to understand the public mood.

Samajwadi Party spokesperson Abdul Hafiz Gandhi for once agrees with the BJP leaders’ assessment and points out that except for “hatred and rumour mongering”, the BJP government has failed to achieve anything in one-and-a-half years.

Lawlessness, he adds, continues in the state. And despite lofty claims and reckless police “encounters”, in which critics say many innocents have died, criminals continue to have a free run.

An Apple executive was shot dead by a policeman in cold blood. And now a police officer too was shot dead during mob violence in Bulandshahr. Many children have died in poorly-managed state-run hospitals.

“So what has changed?” asks a senior BJP leader, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Former Minister and Pragatisheel Samajwadi Party (PSP) President Shivpal Yadav says the government was not only anti-farmer but was also fanning communal passions which he says was not in the interest of the state.

The BJP’s defeats in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh show that the time for the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi was “fast running out”, he added.

Another Minister, also not wishing to be named, told IANS that after initial bravado Adityanath had failed to control the bureaucracy and was dependent on a small coterie of officers.

He pointed out how while the previous Samajwadi Party regime made giant strides in infrastructure, the present one had not been able to deliver results.

“The 308-km Agra-Lucknow Expressway was built from scratch in 18 months flat. We have not been able to even start the Poorvanchal Expressway,” he rued.

The coming together of bitter rivals Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls is also sending the saffron camp into jitters.

(Mohit Dubey can be contacted at [email protected])

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Analysis

Column: “Sadak, bijli, paani”: Basic, yet game-changing – Behind Infra Lines

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Given the varied use of government spending, the question remains on how important it is to focus on the “basic” infrastructure services such as roads, electricity and water — the classic troika of “sadak-bijli-paani”.

Essentially, “basic” infrastructure such as roads, water and electricity are critical drivers of economic growth. Creating the “basic” backbone infrastructure not only delivers value through the usage of the asset or service but, inter alia, offers even greater value through the ecosystem that can be built around the core assets.

A recent tweet by Vinayak Chatterjee, Chairman, Feedback Infra Group, illustrates an example of the value-creation through building “basic” infrastructure: “As per Power Ministry, 15 states now have 100% household electrification. Likely consequences are also emerging like increased sales of electrical appliances.” It drives home the point that electrification infrastructure has a critical impact on creating value through multiplier effects on the economy, boosting demand for goods and services down the consumption chain.

For all the talk of FMCG companies accessing rural markets, consumer durable companies would do well to pay more attention to the infrastructure creation trends in the economy. For example, increased electrification creates entirely new markets for electronic goods-focused consumer durables companies.

However, the creation of a new market is not limited only to the product being sold. Given the relatively higher ticket-value nature of consumer durables, there is a new market for lending businesses as well. This opportunity in the lending space is to finance some part of the consumption trend. This opportunity is applicable mainly to well-entrenched incumbent lending institutions looking for the next phase of growth.

For instance, there might be a Non-Banking Financial Company (NBFC) with a significant business in financing the two-wheeler market in and around the areas seeing increased electrification. The increased electrification trend allows the NBFC to now access a substantial component of existing customers for a new product line of consumer durables. Thereby, the NBFC can deliver value to its stakeholders by building on an existing distribution network and credit information repository.

Additionally, there is a business opportunity for the logistics sector as well. A new market in consumer durables creates the need for transportation, storage and distribution of products in new areas. The above is an example of how “basic” infrastructure creation creates positive multiplier effects throughout the economy. Most importantly, new industries are established, and existing industries can expand into new areas thereby creating jobs and facilitating investments.

For investors focused on India, both in the private and public markets, current trends such as increased electrification create investment opportunities. For example, more electrification begs an important question: Which segment of the supply chain does the investor want to invest in to generate investment returns?

Do investors want to invest in consumer durable companies that can tap into new markets? Do they want to invest in financial firms that can benefit through funding of the consumption? Or do they want to invest in the logistics needed to create the new supply chain? Regarding direct versus non-direct investments, investors have a choice of directly investing in logistics real estate versus investing in publicly-listed companies that have significant exposure to the new markets. The single biggest takeaway is that the creation of “basic” infrastructure creates investment opportunities for all types of investors across the spectrum.

It is also important to note that besides the creation of new infrastructure, significant value creation is possible through improving the quality and maintenance of existing “basic” infrastructure. While new projects tend to grab most of the headlines, gradual quality improvements and effective maintenance of infrastructure is value-additive as well.

In summary, the creation of “basic” infrastructure delivers value on many fronts. Crowding in private capital, job creation, a higher standard of living, access to basic amenities and expansion of business opportunities are some of the obvious advantages that come to mind. Going forward, both central and state governments would do well to build and improve the “backbone” infrastructure.

(Taponeel Mukherjee heads Development Tracks, an infrastructure advisory firm. Views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected] or @Taponeel on Twitter)

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