Digital India: Less Cash, but not Cashless

The past month has seen historic events in India.

On Tuesday 8 November 2016, the Modi government announced without prior warning that all 500 and 1000 Indian rupee notes would be rendered valueless more or less overnight. In effect, this meant immediate withdrawal of the largest bank notes in circulation, and issuance of new notes within a few days, renewing 86 percent of India’s cash economy. Is this another step towards a cashless economy? What has the cash withdrawal done to the black economy, and networks based on corruption? And what are the implications for the use of cash, especially among India’s poor? These are some reflections based on personal experiences from Delhi.

Photo by Gopal Vijayaraghavan

“Going for broke…” Photo credit: Gopal Vijayaraghavan

The morning after Modi’s announcement there was a sense of chaos and an atmosphere of distress. My neighbor suddenly confessed that he had a number of 1000 rupee notes stacked in his cupboard as savings. He was confused and agitated, as he most likely would have to officially declare the sum. He was expecting suspicious questions from the tax authorities.

The local vegetable vendor refused to accept any 500 rupee notes. He explained that his uncle was completely devastated because of his daughter’s wedding preparations. His uncle had saved up money for his daughter’s wedding of about 500 000,- rupees in cash, as this was how the payment would normally be done. Having no bank account where he could deposit the money, what was he supposed to do?

Major official goals of the demonetization have been to curb the black economy, tackle counterfeit notes and decrease corruption. The withdrawal of notes has the side-effect of increasing the use of digital banking and cashless transfers, moving the country towards a less cash-reliant economy. Last week, India’s Prime Minister disclosed the underlying reason, stating: “Our dream is that there should be a cashless society”. The goal is that Indians should substantially increase their reliance on debit card transactions and use of digital wallets.

Demonetization has forced those who to date had no bank account to immediately open an account, and those who were already banked to increase the digital part of their financial exchange. Millions have lined up in front of banks. On 24 November, cash exchange became banned and people had only one option to get rid of old notes – to deposit them in banks. Already within ten days of demonetization, the Reserve Bank of India could announce that more than 5 trillion rupees had been deposited.

As Digital India unfolds, the government is increasingly invested with means of tracking individual transactions. Cash transferred to digital currency means big money in tax revenue for the Indian government. Today, less than 10 percent of the 1,25 billion citizenry pay taxes. In a hard hit against the black economy, the government has also announced that people charged with keeping large amounts in cash, thus seeking to evade taxation, can be fined up to 200 percent in tax penalties.

Those living on less have also been caught up in the unfolding of events, sometimes falling victim to wild rumors. A woman from my neighborhood who earns her living from clothes laundering was convinced that Prime Minister Modi would soon transfer 250 000,- rupees into her newly opened bank account. Apparently someone had told her they heard this on the news. Her friend said she had heard of people dumping millions of rupees in cash in the Yamuna River to get rid of their black cash, to avoid tax penalties. The neighbor’s driver spent eight hours in a bank queue before he had to give up without accomplishing his business. The local vegetable vendor claimed he knew someone who would sell old 1000 notes for 600 rupees in 100 notes, giving a loss of 400 rupees, but a gain in the sense of having money with transactional value. His uncle finally resorted to this option, selling old large-denomination notes. His daughter’s wedding ended up costing the double of what he had set aside.

Undoubtedly, the government’s move has hit the black economy and tax evaders hard. It has shaken previous chains of corruption, and given numerous people living off the shadow economy sleepless nights. The lesson from previous demonetization in the 1970s is that corruption has continued as before when the ripples of the demonetization drive settle. This may no longer be as true in a more digitalized economy.

What demonetization has done is to make both rich and poor Indians rush to the bank. Demonetization of most of India’s cash will not instantaneously and magically create accountability and transparency. But it will push India towards a more digitalized, less cash-reliant, and more taxable economy.

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