India lauds last year's rupee swap, even as economy slows

One year after India launched one of its most ambitious monetary reforms — yanking 86 percent of its currency out of circulation without warning — many Indians still aren't sure if it was worth it.

Economic growth has slowed. Unemployment has risen. And corruption remains a scourge nationwide.

Still, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government insists the move to replace most of the country's currency bills has been a success, and declared Wednesday as "Anti-black money day" to celebrate the country's fight against money laundering and tax evasion.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said Tuesday the "status quo needed to be shaken up" and that tax fraud had been sharply reduced as authorities scrutinize bank accounts for suspicious deposits.

Transparency in financial transactions was also up, with the number of credit card payments increasing 66 percent while other types of digital payments increased even more, according to data from the National Payments Corp. of India. More citizens and businesses are depositing their money in banks, and tax authorities said in August they have registered 5.6 million new taxpayers.

Demonetization, as such currency overhauls are called, has not helped the economy much yet, but the populist move has mostly been welcomed by Modi's base.

"The appeal to people's frustration about corrupt elites who stash money illegally, the encouraging of people's trust in institutions, all that was a success," said political analyst Sreeram Chaulia, dean of the Delhi-based Jindal School of International Affairs.

"Most average Indians have a much narrower notion of economic well-being. They're not looking at growth rates and moves on the stock exchange. They're looking at very simple things like the price of food, whether there is corruption, whether there are scams going on involving senior politicians."

Still, some find it hard to ignore the fact that Asia's third largest economy is sputtering.

Opposition parties have harshly criticized the currency reform as a hasty move that caused financial upheaval and losses for small businesses, manufacturers and countless poor who have long relied on cash for the bulk of their transactions.

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the opposition Congress party called the demonetization drive "reckless" and said that while India needed to tackle tax evasion and fraud, "demonetization was clearly not the solution."

When Modi surprised the nation last year with his midnight announcement that all old 1,000-rupee and 500-rupee bills were now worthless, he called the exercise a "purification" ritual that would cleanse the country of the evils of money laundering and tax evasion. For a few weeks, people were allowed to deposit their old notes in bank accounts. As most did not have bank accounts, they were invited to open them.

But the cash-reliant economy took a hit, and some businesses were forced to shut down altogether. Demonetization was followed eight months later by another massive financial reform, as India replaced its complex system of cascading federal and state taxes with a single goods and services tax, or GST. While that was aimed at streamlining business and eliminating bureaucracy, the tax overhaul also hit small- and medium-sized businesses hard.

In the first quarter of 2017, the Indian economy slowed to 5.7 percent growth — far short of the 8 percent India needs to add enough jobs for the 12 million or so young people entering the work force every year.

Instead, urban unemployment rose to 8.2 percent last month, its highest level in 11 months.

At a rally Wednesday in New Delhi, hundreds of protesters from the Congress party punched their fists in the air and shouted "Down! Down, Narendra Modi!" Some carried placards reading "Demonetization — Organized Looting."

"This was done to make the poor suffer," said Praveen Sonkar, a 42-year-old welder. "Demonetization was only to benefit the rich."


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