By Jayati Ghosh, Professor of Economics and Chairperson at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. Cross-posted from Triple Crisis.
So it’s official: cash use is back in almost full force in the Indian economy. Cash withdrawals from ATM machines – a reasonable if incomplete proxy for the use of cash in the economy – are nearly back to the level of just before the demonetisation shock of 8 November 2016. RBI data on use of debit and credit cards to withdraw money from ATMs show that such withdrawals, which had collapsed to only Rs 850 billion in December 2016 largely because of the sheer unavailability of cash with such machines, amounted to Rs 2.27 trillion in July 2017, only slightly below the Rs 2.55 trillion withdrawals recorded for October 2016.
It is worth noting that this reliance on cash is back despite the fact that the RBI is yet to remonetise the economy fully: currency with the public on 15 September 2017 was still 11 per cent below its level of a year earlier. It cannot simply be assumed (as was done in the Economic Survey 2016-17 Volume II) that this reflects lower demand from currency by the public, since there is no evidence that it is not supply-constrained. Rather, the aggressive return of cash use suggests that it has only been the lack of supply of cash that has constrained people from using it in payments and exchange settlement.
Indeed, it is likely that if the RBI does fully remonetise, then cash use will increase further, since the economy is still growing and therefore the volume and value of total transactions must increase. What is more surprising is that total digital payments have not increased more along with economic growth. In fact such payments, which peaked dramatically in December 2016, are also back to the levels broadly seen in September-October 2016, despite the many incentives provided for such payments through official policy.
This makes it apparent that demonetisation failed on this front as well, in addition to the spectacular failure of not being able to flush out “black money” from the system since almost all the banned notes were returned to banks. The aim of digitisation of the economy by forcing a comprehensive shift to cashless electronic means of payment was declared to be one of the primary goals of that expensive and economically damaging exercise. But now it seems that such a coercive process was untenable: the shift to cashlessness cannot be forced upon people, especially in the absence of other enabling and supporting conditions…