India demonetisation failed to purge black money

India’s central bank has estimated that 99 per cent of the high denomination banknotes cancelled last year were deposited or exchanged for new currency, dashing government hopes that its contentious demonetisation exercise would wipe out huge amounts of “black money”.

When Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, announced in November that Rs1,000 ($16) and Rs500 notes would no longer be legal tender, he suggested that corrupt officials, businessmen and criminals — popularly believed to hoard large amounts of illicit cash — would be stuck with “worthless pieces of paper”.

At the time, government official had suggested that as much as one-third of India’s outstanding currency would be purged from the economy — as the wealthy abandoned or destroyed it, rather than admit to their hoardings — reducing central bank liabilities and creating a government windfall.

But the Reserve Bank of India’s annual report on Wednesday suggested that most holders of the old currency managed to dispose of it, estimating that banned notes worth Rs15.28tn ($239bn) were returned to the bank. That amounts to 99 per cent of the Rs15.44tn of the old high-value notes that were in circulation when Mr Modi made his announcement, according to the finance ministry.

The bank’s estimate follows media reports that complex money-laundering networks sprang up in the wake of the demonetisation to help wealthy Indians deposit huge volumes of previously undeclared currency without exposing themselves to tax authorities. Such people allegedly sold the old notes, at a discount, to brokers who then dispatched low-income Indians to deposit or exchange them at banks.

Many wealthy Indians turned to friends and relatives to help them funnel previously undeclared cash into the banking system, while others “advance paid” salaries for large numbers of workers.

The government’s critics were quick to seize on the RBI’s announcement as evidence of the policy’s failure. “99%…

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