South Asia

 
 

India’s demonetisation woes, a year on

Jake Read

Development | South Asia

 

At 8:15pm on the 8th of November 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared on live television to announce that the two highest banknote denominations of the Indian Rupee had become worthless. Citizens had until the New Year’s Eve of 2016 to either bank deposit their 500 and 1000 Indian Rupee (Rs) banknotes (~AUD$10/$20 respectively) or swap them for lower banknotes at registered banks.

86% of India’s cash value had been abruptly wiped out in one speech, with India’s central bank destroying the now-defunct banknotes from the next day. Prime Minister Modi announced that bearers of the bills also had the option to trade old banknotes to a new replacement series of 500rs and 2000rs bills.

These bills were however initially scarce: 24 billion notes were subject to withdrawal and, according to RBI Deputy Governor R. Gandhi, just over 1 billion new notes were printed in time. Subsequently, the rest of the year was followed by mass queues, severe currency shortages, national protests and reportedly, even a number of casualties due to exhaustion from queues and crowd rushes.

One year on, the situation has stabilised and to an extent, cash flow has returned to India.

Purpose

Prime Minister Modi’s ‘war on black money’ campaign was part of a promise to curtail the plague of hidden markets upon the government’s economic management. A major objective was to digitalise the economy and to force the creation of more transactional paper trails.

In 2017, Credit Suisse estimated 90%-95% of Indian transactions were cash conducted and few were ever formally recorded. Merchants of all income levels were stashing their bills to avoid their tax obligations and holding ‘unaccounted’ wealth. Counterfeit banknote numbers were also unacceptably high.

To combat this underground money market, Prime Minister Modi implemented a range of policies on top of demonetisation, including introducing federal GST, cancelling tens of thousands of shady business registrations and broadcasting government support behind digitalising banking.

The drastic policy aimed at curbing cash hoarding was Prime Minister Modi’s 2016/17 pièce de résistance, temporarily stripping the population of cash in favour of account credit – which leads us to the cash situation of 2017/18 India.

 

[caption id="attachment_6615" align="alignnone" width="700"] Pictured: Low-valued, sparse 100 Rupee bill distributed to holders of 500 and 1000 Rupee bills following demonetisation (Jake Read)[/caption]

Indian (Cold, Hard) Cash

Upon India’s demonetisation, 100 Rupee (AUD$2) became the next highest banknote (followed by 50rs, 20rs, 10rs and 5rs). Holders of the 500 and 1000 Rupee bills had no choice but to wait in lines for hours to accept stacks of the low-valued, now-sparse 100 Rupee bills. If lucky, they were able to access new 500 and 2000 Rupee (AUD$10/$40) bills. As the months passed, the number of  100 Rupee bills increased and were soon followed by the introduction of 200 Rupee (AUD$4) banknotes in August 2017.

Cash will remain king in India in the long-term future despite the government’s large scale efforts towards digital payments. Before demonetisation, the Reserve Bank of India registered 17.9 trillion Rupees worth of “currency with the public”. In a matter of weeks, this dramatically halved to under 9 trillion Rupees. RBI public data shows that week-by-week, the currency supply increased as Indian money printers worked tirelessly to print more new bills. One year later, the figure stands at 16.3 trillion Rupees, plateauing below pre-demonetisation levels.

The Indian government has heralded demonetisation a success – pointing towards the fact that while 99% of the 500/1000rs bills were handed in, cash demand in the Indian economy dropped to a new low. This indicates that instead of using cash, more Indians have been pushed into electronic payments and mobile wallets. Monthly Indian debit card transactions even rose 58% to 345.7 billion rupees in the eight months after demonetisation, from 219.4 billion rupees before demonetisation.

In the post-demonetisation “Digital India” era of increased transparency, enrolling into the Indian government’s biometric database has been mandatory for submitting tax returns, spending/transferring over 50,000rs and for opening new bank accounts. This has led to 99% of Indians being digitally recorded as of the 2016/17 Financial Year, another measure at targeting India’s hidden cash markets.

Prime Minister Modi and his government, albeit with harsh backlash, plan to continue their program of ‘phasing out’ cash reliance - at least until next year’s federal election. The newly introduced 2000rs bills is considered inappropriate for frequent, everyday transactions. India is now reserving its cash for smaller purchases, with electronic payments increasingly becoming the preference of Indians for both their expensive and cheaper transactions.

3 minute read

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Sindh’s Mohajir card: on its last legs

Qandeel Khan

Politics | South Asia

 

Pakistan is a surprisingly ethnically diverse country. Urdu, its official language, is spoken by only 8 percent of the population. Pakistan’s abject failure to glue different nationalities, languages, politics and religious beliefs upon its creation has triggered a host of issues for the nation today. Former capital Karachi is the arena for one of the most interesting: the rise and demise of Mohajir politics.

Once a formidable force, Mohajir-aligned political groups and their militant wings are now on their last legs, set to lose their political clout in the near future.

Here is where the story begins: in the years following partition the Mohajir were touted as loyal, valuable migrants providing much needed skills to assist Pakistan in its fledgling years after the exodus of educated Hindi communities. An opposing narrative, led mostly by native Sindhis viewed Mohajir as elitist newcomers who not only quickly integrated with the oppressive Punjabi bureaucracy, but who swamped Sindh’s urban cities and forcefully imposed their Urdu cultural identity upon Sindhis.

Very soon, the Mohajir formed half of the provincial capital Karachi’s population, and were over-represented in government, military and business roles.

From the 1970s onwards, this dominance was lost. The new Prime Minister Zulfikar Bhutto took measures to placate Sindhi alienation, imposing pro-rural quotas for government jobs and admission to educational institutions, and introducing Sindhi as a compulsory language in school and work. Following General Zia-Ul-Haq’s martial regime in the late 1970s that heavily favoured Punjabis, and influxes of Pathan and Baclohi migrants into Sindh, the Mohajir began to feel squeezed out.

Amid brewing discontent over the restriction of career opportunities for poor and middle-class educated Mohajir youth, a university student named Altaf Hussain who did not meet quotas for admission into a pharmacy program started the earliest version of today’s Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM).

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The MQM appealed to the Urdu-speaking majority of Karachi and Hyderabad by promising to address concerns other national or religious parties had not—"Islamic parties promised us a place in heaven but failed to get us one in Pakistan", explained one MQM supporter. Ruled internally with an iron fist by a charismatic leader, MQM’s leader Altaf Hussain was respected as a pir (a Muslim saint) and a bhai (brother). Giving dramatic speeches where he often wept about the plight of his fellow Mohajir, MQM became the dominant political force in urban Sindh, with Altaf successfully mobilising an emerging ethnic loyalty.

Riots came with the growth of an MQM militant wing, normalising political violence in the city. Targeted killings, torture and abduction of rival parties, police or government were common. Describing their motivations, one young Mohajir militant stated, “Altaf Hussain arrived on the scene talking about my experience exactly… He showed that because 2 per cent of the population ruled over 98 per cent, a lower-middle class, educated, intelligent boy couldn't become a general or reach a high post in Pakistan. That's why I joined. I was 18 or 20.” The total cost of lives in Karachi’s urban killings has been deemed comparable to the war with the Taliban and jihadists.

But despite being drunk on violent victories for decades, the hangover finally hit. The glory of the MQM faded slowly, at first—and then seemingly all at once.

People of all backgrounds grew tired of violence. The once beloved Altaf Hussain, now exiled in London for several years, grew increasingly erratic and out of touch. The last straw fell in August 2016, when a hate-speech by Hussain went viral: “Pakistan is a cancer for the entire world. Down with Pakistan.” The Mohajir, frustrated with constant commands to spurn the country their ancestors chose to call home, and unimpressed with allegations of corruption against Altaf Hussain, had had enough.

The MQM soon split into three factions, marking the first time in decades that Karachi’s political landscape had not seen a strong, unified Mohajir front, leaving smaller, weaker groups competing for the Mohajir vote.

With Altaf Hussain now gone, can we expect Mohajir politics to remain the same?

Probably not.

Pakistan is currently undergoing its first census since 1998. High migration and low birth rates means there is wide expectation that the Mohajir are no longer the demographic majority in Karachi. Constituency boundaries may be redrawn out of the census in a way that would sorely weaken the Mohajir vote.

And it’s no longer the 1970s. The fundamentalist premise justifying the MQM’s existence in the first place was that young Mohajirs were being denied opportunities for social mobility and economic prosperity.

Back then, most relied on access to political patronage and a government job for success. After economic liberalisation of the 1990s, this is no longer the sole option, nor the most popular for young people.

The smartest students no longer want to be generals; they want to be brand managers for Unilever. While rural-urban quotas remain, they matter little since demand for government employment amid young, educated, urban Pakistanis is low.

Memories of partition trauma are salient, but no longer fresh. With neither a carrot nor a whip, it is difficult to imagine the MQM or its offshoots succeeding to play the Mohajir card for much longer.

5 minute read

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