Not for the first time, the government’s elusive claims about the efficacy of demonetisation have been met with tangible data suggesting that the exercise failed to achieve its various goals.
On August 29, the Reserve Bank of India released its annual report which stated that 99.3% of the notes that had been scrapped by the government in November 2016 were back in the system.
The data flies in the face of what the Centre had claimed when its announced its decision to ban Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes overnight on November 8, 2016. The move was posited as a miracle cure for several ills plaguing India’s economy, including black money and counterfeit currency. With time, other benefits were also added to the mix, including that demonetisation would push India towards a cashless economy, weaken terrorism and help ease the crisis in Kashmir.
While the other stated goals have been repudiated over time, the RBI report strikes at the core of the exercise and validates what many economists, journalists and political commentators have been saying all along – that the idea that black money is stowed away in cash and will hence be wiped out by demonetisation is wrong.
Above all, the RBI report also backs with numbers the anecdotal evidence of the hardships of common citizens that had been extensively documented by journalists across the country in the months after the note ban came into effect. With time and amid the heated blame game and political rhetoric, this human cost of demonetisation has gone out of focus, even as the economy continues to reel under its impact.
Satish Archarya, a political cartoonist, had extensively tracked and documented the many hits and misses of the demonetisation excercise as they occurred. In 2017, his cartoons were compiled in a book called Rupee or Not Rupee. Put together, these provide a handy visual recap of the heydays of demonetisation, the ensuing chaos, the rapid policy changes and most importantly, the impact of the move on common Indians.
Acharya described Rupee Or Not Rupee as an “accidental book”. “I knew that demonetisation episode is going to be a milestone in India’s economic history, either for good reasons or disastrous consequences,” he explained. “But never thought I’d come up with a book on note ban. After November 8, every day we had so much happening in our country. It was impossible for any cartoonist not to respond. And I kept responding through...And the cartoons piled up and I thought these [should] reach people even after they forget about demonetisation. As I self-publish all my books, it wasn’t tough to come up with a book in a flash.”
The book includes Acharya’s cartoons for Mail Today (with which he ended his association this August, after they dropped a cartoon of his about growing Chinese influence in regions surrounding India) as well as his syndicated work. The cartoons were drawn over three months, Acharya said, the first one made within half an hour after Modi’s speech announcing demonetisation and the most recent of the collection, just hours before it went to press.
The constant supply of inspiration came from the government’s ever-changing policies. When Modi first announced the big-bang move, Acharya was hopeful. “Cartoonists always look at government policy with a little bit of skepticism,” he said. “But in the case of demonetisation we were looking at a historic masterstroke or a monumental disaster...We all believed PM Modi when he said he wants to remove black money through this masterstroke.”
But in the ensuing days of chaos and hardship, his view on the exercise changed. “The government was behaving like a director who had one-line story and was struggling to write a screenplay,” he said. “All these cartoons in the book were attempts to expose the lack of intent on the part of government. Decisions were inconsistent and lacked vision.”
The cartoons also give visual representation to what critics had been observing, about the government’s shifting goalposts on the purpose of the exercise, or the pitfalls of trying to force a cash-less economy on a country with uneven internet connectivity and large levels of illiteracy.
Another focus area was the hardship caused by the exercise to common citizens and the underprivileged. As 86% of the currency in circulation was invalidated in one fell swoop, a severe cash crunch put a cash-dependent economy in crisis. The informal sector, which forms a large portion of India’s workforce, was hit the hardest. Reports of deaths, difficulties, job losses poured in from across the country. Meanwhile, frequent policy changes by the government added to the chaos, as citizens grappled with adhoc rules and rapidly changing limits on how much cash they could deposit or withdraw.
Even the Opposition is not spared. One of the cartoons, for instance, took on Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s widely criticised year-end vacation that year, in the midst of his party’s heated campaign against the BJP on demonetisation.
One of the first concrete signs that demonetisation had not had its intended effect emerged in January 2017, when reports said that 97% of the scrapped notes were already back with the RBI.
Acharya said that he and his family were thankfully not drastically affected by demonetisation. “We as a family were affected to some extent, but I live in a joint family. That helped us a bit in dealing with it,” he said. “What pains me most is how it affected and destroyed the lives of common people.”
He added, “I think the government should make a detailed survey about the effects of note ban on small factories, small business units. They should identify them and help them restart their lives.”