India’s Demonetization One Year Later: A Failed Tool to Combat Corruption

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.

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Cash Crunch: How Will India’s Supreme Court Respond to Modi’s Radical Move?

Last November 8th, the same day the United States elected a kleptocrat to its highest office, an executive on the other side of the world—Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi—launched what Larry Summers called “the most sweeping change in currency policy that has occurred anywhere in the world for decades.” Prime Minister Modi’s surprise “demonetization” drive gave citizens fifty days to exchange all 500 and 1000 rupee notes (valued at about 8 and 15 USD respectively). Modi’s radical move, which will remove approximately 86% of all currency in circulation, is an attempt to combat endemic petty corruption, money laundering, terrorist financing, and tax   evasion (only 2% of Indians pay income tax). Prime Minister Modi was elected on an anticorruption platform in 2014, and pledged during his campaign to target hidden cash (so-called “black money”). Yet the demonetization campaign came as a surprise. Indeed, it probably had to be a surprise, lest those hiding fortunes in cash would have been able to prepare for the policy change.

While the Indian public generally supports aggressive anticorruption efforts, it would be hard to exaggerate the disruption resulting from demonetization. The real estate and wedding industries run largely on cash, as do most small businesses. And the demonetization program has hit regular citizens hard: People have been waiting in lines for hours to exchange their cash, which can be especially difficult for the four-fifths of women who don’t have a bank account. In the short term, consumption, the stock market, and growth forecasts have all plummeted and the agricultural sector is expected to suffer as well. Prime Minister Modi acknowledged the campaign would cause pain for many honest people, but believed it was worth it, stating that black money and “corruption are the biggest obstacles in eradicating poverty.” (Since then, the official justification for the campaign appears to have shifted to an attack on the cash economy as a whole, rather than a campaign against black money specifically.)

The fate of the demonetization program now lies with India’s judiciary: Continue reading