In our 5-minute discussion in class on Wednesday, a student asked me about the implications of the Indian government's crackdown on people holding high-denomination currency. I didn't know much about it and gave a so-so answer. Now I know more.
This piece lays out some facts and some of the ominous implications.
About 85% of all currency in circulation has just been turned into coupons that can only be exchanged in specific places. These notes can be converted into currency again only with identity proofs (which hundreds of millions don't have) and the additional hardship of standing in many queues for many hours.
Over half of India's population doesn't have any sort of bank account at the moment and about 300 million don't have basic ID such as Aadhaar either and hence, cannot access the banking system at all. About 130 million Indians have mobile wallets (about 25 million have credit cards) and there are maybe 550-600 million debit cards in circulation. So access to cash is very, very important for average Indians.
One possible implication:
The move to demonetise will hurt the very rich in absolute terms but it will mean marginal damage to their assets. It will impact the middle class in terms of inconvenience for several months. It will gut the very poor and the lower income groups. These are people with little in the way of ID proof and they often keep cash stashed under the bed because they have no bank accounts.
Your domestic worker, whose ID (if she has one) says she lives in a village a 1000 km away. Your driver, who saves a chunk of his salary and sends it home to his family. The disabled flower seller/beggar at the traffic lights. The 12-year-old selling pirated books who ran away from an abusive home. The waiter--cum-delivery boy at the local dhaba. The massage parlour therapist. These are the people who will get really badly hurt. They all have high proportions of their income stashed in cash and they will have to pay large sums under the table to legitimise it.
Here's what I wonder. If Kenneth Rogoff, the U.S. economist who would like to get rid of cash and, indeed, thinks it's a curse, could push a button affirming this particular Indian government move, would he push it?