After almost three weeks of demonetisation, there is visible pain in the lives of ordinary people, a noticeable slowdown in economic activity, and reports of job losses in many sectors. The economy may contract by as much as two percentage points over the next two quarters — a colossal loss in national wealth. However, there can be no rollback. The gains from a cleaner, whiter economy are far bigger in the long run. Here’s how Narendra Modi can save demonetisation.
1) Speed is of the essence. Don’t depend only on our own printing presses to replenish the cash; subcontract the currency presses of friendly governments whose security levels are unimpeachable. Fly in the new notes and flood the system. The priority is to restore liquidity in the market so people can get on with their lives.
2) Extend the income disclosure scheme. True, the last amnesty scheme was only a modest success, but after the stick recently wielded by Modi, a little carrot might work better now. Demonetisation has given rise to new currency brokers who are converting the old notes at 30 to 40% discount. Since government is threatening more action against black money such as scrutiny of benami land titles, people will be more inclined to convert their black to white via an amnesty scheme — say at a 50% tax rate rather than the 60% it is considering — rather than convert old black money to new black money via a broker.
Some may opt to disclose their black money as ‘current income’ and get away by legally paying around 35% tax; this too should be welcomed. Another alternative is to offer low-yielding, long-term bonds that would convert black to white; the government would gain by getting money cheaply. The purpose is to diminish the fear in the most productive groups in society that create most of the jobs. Don’t demonize them: this is not a dharmayuddha. The objective is to change old, ingrained habits for the betterment of society.
3) End harassment. Law-abiding citizens will happily pay tax if they believe they will be respectfully treated by income-tax officials. People need to be reassured that they can file returns online today; pay tax online; and get refund online. The computer decides, not the ITO, which returns are to be scrutinized. Modi needs to mount a major campaign to reassure people about this reduction in official discretion. He needs to also severely punish any tax official caught harassing a taxpayer.
4) Put black to use. Offer a significant fiscal stimulus to the economy from the notes not likely to be exchanged, black money that will disappear forever. Spending this non-inflationary money — an estimated Rs 3 lakh crore — on infrastructure and housing can create masses of jobs and mitigate some of the jobs lost in demonetisation.
5) Focus on real estate. Demonetisation will not stop the corruption that creates black money. For this you have to attack its underlying sources. In real estate, every step is mired in corruption — from buying land to getting approvals. Black money is also the result of excessive stamp duty. For this reason, Vijay Kelkar had recommended merging stamp duty into GST in his pioneering report on GST. That may be too late but we must keeping fighting for sensible taxes and clean titles in land.
6) Roll back the customs duty on gold. Smuggling of gold declined in India when import restrictions were lifted after 1991. A decent white business developed in gold and jewellery. In 2013, there was a setback when customs duty on gold was reintroduced. Cash payments became common again because smuggled gold was cheaper.
7) Reform the silly curbs on legitimate election donations to candidates. This has led to the use of black money in elections. I do not favour state funding, where my hard-earned taxes would finance candidates and family dynasties I despise. Instead we should follow the best practices in the US and Europe in funding elections.
8) Reform the bureaucracy. Black money is generated because of administrative discretion. A good place to begin reform is to implement Justice Srikrishna’s draft Indian Financial Code.
9) Do not attempt to end black money. People should not break the law but we should overlook small transgressions, just like we ignore pedestrians who cross on a red light. Cash lubricates the system and a cashless society is the road to dictatorship.
10) Don’t touch the aam aadmi’s tender. Finally, the next time you want to demonetise, flood the market first with 5,000 and 10,000-rupee notes; once the black money has moved up to these higher notes, demonetise only the Rs 5,000 and Rs 10,000 notes. Spare the aam aadmi.