One year ago, in an unscheduled live televised address, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that within weeks the ₹500 and ₹1000 banknotes would become worthless. Prime Minister Modi framed this so-called “demonetization” policy as part of the battle against corruption and illicitly-obtained “black money,” which had “spread their tentacles” through the India economy. The Prime Minister identified two ways that demonetization would combat corruption. First, the surprise devaluing of currency would leave criminals, including corrupt officials, with millions of rupees’ worth of currency that would suddenly become worthless, and those holding large stashes of black money would be unwilling or unable to exchange it without having to explain where the money came from. Second, going forward, demonetization would make it more difficult to hold, transport, or exchange large quantities of cash (particularly since the Indian government was demonetizing the two largest notes in circulation); as the Prime Minister emphasized, “[t]he magnitude of cash in circulation is directly linked to the level of corruption.”
One year out, it is increasingly clear that India’s demonetization experiment imposed tremendous social and economic costs but failed to achieve either of these objectives (see here, here, and here). A closer examination of the reasons for this failure may help us understand both the potential and limits of demonetization as a tool to combat corruption and the underground economy.