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DeMonetisation did not promote the uptake of digital transactions

Driving India towards a less-cash, digital payments economy was one of the aims claimed by the Prime Minister when he invalidated 86% of India's circulating currency. The reasoning was that India was a largely cash-based economy; if circulating cash was reduced, people would rapidly move towards electronic, or digital payment systems for their commercial transactions. That at any rate was the hope.

Did it happen?

Rupa Subramanya thinks it did. She claimed as much in a blog in the Hindustan Times. She accepts that the original aim of taking out black money has not been met, given that almost all of the Specified Bank Notes (SBNs) hav now been returned for exchange or deposit. But she goes on to say that her research shows that the secondary aim of pushing the country towards digital payments and away from a cash based economy has been achieved. To quote from her article:

....several key components of digital payments such as Point of Sale Debit and Credit (PoS) purchases, National Electronic Fund Transfer (NEFT), Immediate Payment Systems (IMPS) and mobile banking, are way above their pre-demonetisation trends

.....

The bottom line of the research conclusively demonstrates that there was a structural break after November 2016 with a permanent increase in digital payments and decrease in the relative importance of cash. Whatever you may think of the original goals and whether they succeeded, it’s clear digitisation is one demonstrable success story of demonetisation.

She expresses the use of digital payments not in absolute terms but as a proportion of total M3 Money. However, though she says she has published her findings,  they are not in peer reviewed journals. Rather the findings are published in research papers for the Observer Research Foundation - a think tank. I haven't seen these papers and therefore cannot comment on the methodology of the research. In any case she does not cite a source, nor does her article present the full results of her analysis. Her data source, though is the same that I have used earlier in a series of tweets and in a twitter Moment. This is the Reserve Bank of India's Database on Indian Economy.

I believe her conclusions are premature, they may even be misleading or wrong, based as they are not on absolute value of payments but on payment volumes as a ratio of M3.

I present here my own much simpler and more intuitive analysis of the RBI data set and draw very different conclusions.

Data and Methods: The RBI dataset consists of monthly transaction amounts for each of several different modes of digital transactions. The data goes back to 2004 and the latest available data is for August 2017, 10 months after DeMonetisation. Rather than look at just at the figures a few months either side of D-Day (DeMonetisation-Day if you are a fan or Disaster-day if you are a critic), I suggest it is best to look at the entire period. Since these are time series data (defined as data collected consistently with a defined periodicity - in this case monthly) the most obvious and simple technique would be to chart the data against time, draw a vertical line at D-day and look for a change in the trend . If D-Day did indeed result in qualitative sustained change in aggregate behaviour the change in trend would be obvious. I used the statistical programming language, R and the charting package ggplot2 to draw and annotate the charts. These statistical programmes are widely used in academia and business.

Results: The results of my analysis are best presented as a series of charts. They speak for themselves.

The key point to get is that by looking at the entire time series for each of the main digital payment modalities, two conclusions leap out immediately.

One, that in the first few months after D-Day there was a spurt the volume of payments made by digital means.

Two, for some payment modalities, they have subsequently fallen back to levels that were seen well before D-day. In particular retail electronic clearing, and plastic card volumes are effectively back on the same trend growth they always were since long before D-Day. Mobile banking transactions in particular were going up steeply in the months before D-Day was even a glint in anyone's eye; they went up even more steeply after D-day - and here's the crucial point, they have more latterly dropped right back. If we superimpose what we know about the re-introduction of new currency notes this looks like a perfect fit. As cash was re-introduced into the system, people began giving up on mobile banking transactions.

Another set of charts looks at the volumes (i.e number) of transactions.

Here there appears to be a small shift upward that, despite some month on month fluctuation appears to be settling down at a level clearly higher than anything seen pre D-Day. In the case of mobile transactions it is small-ish numbers and starting from a very low base; in the case of digital transactions its a step change from about 1.4 billion transactions a month to about 2 billion. But the volumes transacted appear not to have shifted much at all - it is in keeping with long-running trend and it is certainly not a step change.

Undoubtedly, there has been a steep growth in the number of Point of Sale outlets, as shown here:

Starting from a very low base, this is only to be expected given the huge Government push including cash incentives and subsidies for the take up of POS machines. The extend to which these have penetrated much beyond the largest urban centres and the plushest retail outlets is the big question. The last chart above is based on data published by NITIAayog

Conclusions. My analysis leads me to conclude that any effect of DeMonetisation on the use of digital payment systems has been transient, small and short-lived. Some change has occurred (POS terminals for example) but the fact that both retail electronic clearing and card usage is back on what I call 'trend growth' (i.e. on the same trend as obtained before D-day) would suggest that there has not been a structural change that can be confidently ascribed to DeMonetisation.

Post-script discussion. In all the commentary on Digital Payments insufficient attention has been paid to a most fascinating report that was published on Oct 5 by Visa India. Amitabh Kant, CEO of NITIaayog, wrote the foreword to this report. Nobody who read the detailed figures or had taken in the measured  recommendations in this report would have supported a sudden, cataclysmic and disruptive withdrawal of 86% of the currency, certainly not with the intention of promoting a digital payments economy. Among the key findings of the report are:

  • Cash usage costs the economy 1.7% of GDP (Note: borne largely by the State)
  • According to a 2014 World Bank survey, only 0.38 percent of women above 15 years old used the internet to make payments compared with 2.04 percent
    of men; 3.25 percent women had used a debit card versus 5.25 percent of men.
  • The cost of a point-of-sale (POS) terminal in India ranges from INR 8,000 to INR 12,000. The annual operating cost is INR 3,000
    per terminal. Low transaction volumes especially outside of Tier 1 cities, make it unviable for banks to expand their footprint into such segments.
  • RBI and the Govt of India already had a plan to transition to a less-cash economy.
  • If India  invested a total of INR 58,000 crores (USD 8.6 billion) over the next five years through tax
    rebates, it could not only expedite the pace of payment digitisation but also save about INR 70,000 crores (USD 10.4
    billion) in that period through a reduction in the cost of cash with a potential to save 4.7 lakh crores (USD 70 billion)
  • If we invested 60,000 crores and undertook a series of reforms and regulatory changes cash use could come down in 2025 from 1.7% of GDP to 1.3%.
  • In particlar see exhibit 7 of the rport which details the benefits from a sustained programe of policy changes as well as investments to improve the infrastructure for digital transactions. Effectively, a 5 year programme of sustained policy implementation and investment would potentially result in a growth of digital payments for Personal Consumption Expenditure from 4% to a whopping 36%, a drop in cash need from 11% of GDP to 10%.

 

A year on the Prime Minister's Great Idea may have turned out to be a dud

Mao ZeDong’s Great Leap Forward [1]  has to be the most outstanding example of the devastating harm from the unintended consequences of a state policy that aimed to modernize and develop an entire country.  It resulted in the deaths of 45 million Chinese in 4 years [2].

That was possible only because China was a Communist dictatorship and Mao held absolute power over both Party and the people of China. He decided it was a good idea and the Great Leap Forward happened.

In contrast, Mr Modi’s sudden, dramatic and hugely disruptive announcement of a year ago on Nov 8 2016 [3] was a tame affair; only a few score people died[4]. Like the Great Leap Forward, it too was one man’s Great Idea [5]; the aims were similarly laudable even if the goalposts kept changing; unlike Mao ZeDong though, Mr Modi was an elected leader of a Party that had won a decisive mandate.

Black Money was a major problem, declared the Prime Minister, and it called for a dramatic, decisive and bold step. Effective midnight 8th Nov 2016 the 500 and 1000 Rupee notes would be raddi ('worthless pieces of paper' to use the PM's words). New notes would be issued, including inexplicably a 2000R-Rupee note; and people left holding the old notes would be able to exchange them at banks or deposit them for credit to their accounts.

Almost everyone in India was affected and quite a few overseas Indians. Those with real black money (held as cash, you were safe if all your illegal wealth was held as gold or real estate)  found ingenious ways to convert their illegal stash of old notes into bank deposits.

The others, especially the poor, suffered the most. Day-to-day commercial transactions seized up. Shopping for groceries, taxi rides, buying a train ticket, paying the utility bill - all the routine stuff of everyday life became hard. Given that the notes that were declared illegal made up fully 86% of the currency-in-circulation, and that for all but the richest urban citizens India was still predominantly a cash economy, this was hardly surprising. Daily wage labourers lost livelihoods; victims of domestic violence lost the money they were hiding from violent partners; small businesses saw customers turn away; smaller businesses and street traders could not afford to take up the offer of Point of Sale equipment.  The rural sector was worst hit;  agricultural markets collapsed in a state-ordained market failure. [6]

But there was also widespread support for a ‘decisive strike against the rich and the corrupt’; in the days of chaos that followed, support for the Prime Minister hardly wavered. The cause was a noble one and people were prepared to make personal sacrifices for the national good. In time the economy would pick up, more of the informal cash-driven sector would be persuaded, cajoled or dragged into the formal, digital-transaction banked sector, the tax take would rise and India would become a modern rich economy. Trillions of rupees would not be returned to the banks by rich crooks and the ensuing windfall would be put to good use in building up national infrastructure. That, at any rate, was the hope.

It remained a forlorn hope. None of the claimed benefits materialised.

By June 2017, even the Govt's staunchest media supporter, SwarajyaMag.com acknowledged that the move had not lived up to the expectations. [7] press Very little Black money has been unearthed. After much delay a discredited central bank finally came out with the figures that almost all of the notes in circulation have been handed in [8]. There were no major prosecutions for tax evasion or illegal money laundering.

The process of re-monetisation with the new notes gradually picked up and by the 1st anniversary the total currency in circulation was back to 85% of what it used to be. Cashless transaction rose in the early days after Nov 2016 as people were forced to use alternative means of payment but have since fallen back to previous levels as currency became available.[9]

The wider economic damage too has been widely acknowledged. GDP growth fell back to levels last seen in the worst years of the previous  regime.[10] Jobs growth just did not materialise.

The Great Idea of 2016 will continue to be assessed, studied, debated and analysed for a long time, [11] But some questions may never be unanswered for many years to come.

  • What advice and analysis went into the formulation of the policy? Were experts consulted at all?
  • What was the role of economic and finance policy institutions like the Reserve Bank of India and NITI-Aayog? Did they play a role in the formulation of the policy and its implementation or were they relegated to serving as mere apologists for the ill-effects of a decision taken by an autocratic Prime Minister?
  • Why did Cabinet not protest at being ensconed in a room without access to mobile phones as the decision was announced?
  • Was it not the role of Parliament to hold the Government to account?
  • Will there ever be an independent cost-benefit analysis of the decision?

 

References:

  1. See this wikipedia account of the Great Leap Forward.
  2. See: this review of a book on the subject. I acknowledge that I have not read the book in the original.
  3. See this article in the Scroll.In for a review of how the news was covered in the newspapers on Nov 9th 2016.
  4. Deaths attributable directly and solely to the scrapping of notes was always going to be difficult. That a number of deaths occurred in queues is undeniable. Were they caused by the need to stand in queues? That's more difficult. Arguably the distress, the economic harm, the job losses and the lost wages/livelihoods and savings took its toll on ordinary people. The exact number of deaths became a political ding-dong  that diverted attention from the bigger question of the wisdom of the policy.
  5. We'll never know for certain that the final decision to go ahead and DeMonetise the currency was entirely Mr Modi's. There has never been a proper enquiry. All the indirect evidence points to it being either solely or largely his decision and his alone. Much later on it emerged that the RBI Board met on the morning of the 8th Nov and agreed to a Govt proposal but the delay in publishing this resolution leads to the suspicion that it was a hastily put together fig leaf. See: this and this . There's also speculation that a war on cash was one of the suggestions put forward to Mr Modi by an engineer and keen campaigner for tax reform Mr Anil Bokil of the Pune based ArthaKranti Foundation . Its worth noting that these ideas have no traction among mainstream economists.
  6. See the writings of P Sainath on the effects of the noteban on rural economy of India.  https://ruralindiaonline.org/articles/demonetisation
  7. SwarajyaMag.com is an online journal that is openly and avowedly right wing and a keen supporter of the PM's party. In an unexpected op-ed piece on June 14 2017, R Jagannathan the editor declared Demonetisation to be a failure but argued that the critics were right for the wrong reasons. Their criticisms, he argued was led more by animosity towards Mr Modi than by any special economic insight. But even I, as an amateur student of economics, argued in my blog of 16 Nov 2016, a week after the decision to demonetise, that it was a flawed policy that would do nothing to root out black money. I argued that DeMonetisation would cause tremendous hardship and loss to large numbers of people, that it would not deliver its claimed benefits, that there were other better targeted means of combating black money.  It was, I argued neither necessary nor sufficient to make a serious dent in black money. At that time, it is important to note, the stated aim was to eliminate black money. The push to a digital cashless payments system came later on.
  8. The earlier, almost gleeful, expectation was that as much as 3.5 to 5 trillion rupees worth of high denomination notes would not be handed back in and would be a free windfall for the Reserve Bank of India which would see a dramatic drop in its liabilities. This would be a huge bonanza in the form of a one off dividend from RBI to the Govt. This euphoria evaporated when someone pointed out that a decline in liabilities affected the balance sheet but would not lead to a profit and the RBI act  required it to pay a dividend only out of annual profits from banking activities. In the event the actual dividend that RBI paid out to the Govt in 2017 actually fell by almost half compared to the previous year. The losses arose out of scrapping the old notes, printing new ones, and the extra logistics costs of shipping the new notes out to where it was needed.
  9. I published a twitter thread and a moment with analysis of month-by-month time series data right up to August 2017 of the amount of money that flowed through non-cash digital payments systems. These include bank-to bank systems, like real time gross settlements used by businesses, paper-based payments systems (bank drafts and cheques), retail electronic payments, credit and debit card payments, and mobile banking payments. These charts show that any effect of DeMonetisation has been at best short-lived. There has been a growth in the number of point of sale terminals but from a very low base, and a growth in the number of subscribers to mobile phone based payments systems.
  10. The GDP growth slowdown has been widely commented upon. The standard Govt response has wavered between arguing that DeMonetisation was necessary medicine for a a backward economy built on cash-fuelled corruption, and a counterattack that the slowdown is not due to Demonetisation but was in the making long before Nov 2016. As arguments go both are own-goals and ill-serve the Govt's credibility.  
  11. The Harvard Business review paper argues that the 4 lessons to learn are
    • Choose your experts carefully. Mr Modi may have been influenced by a few cranks posing as economic experts with not so much out-of-the-box ideas as off the wall thoughts.
    • Dont ignore basic data. All the evidence was that only 6% of black or illegal wealth was held in cash. Not attacking the sources of corruption - politicians, real estate, and big businessmen meant tha instead of a targeted approach we had an assault on everyone - honest and weak included, in which the rich and corrupt got clean away.
    • Consider human behaviour. People found a way out of the cash crunch both to manage their poor honest lives and to squirrel away whatever illegal cash they held. Digital transaction was already growing as fast as it could given the infrastructure available, so as soon as new cash came into the system any spurt faded away.
    • Beware of digital silver bullets. India came 41st out of 42 countries just ahead of arch-rival Pakistan in the infrastructure needed to support a digital payments eco-system. However 'bold' and 'decisive' an executive ordz er cannot replace patient attention to detail.

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Linking Aadhaar to bank accounts is a recipe for creating benami[2] bank accounts and scaling benami bank transactions. It threatens to destroy your bank accounts and destroy the country’s banking system. It’s devastating that the integrity of banking processes is being destroyed by dividing, outsourcing and privatising processes integral to core banking so that they become the responsibility of no one.

Linking Aadhaar[1] to bank accounts is a recipe for creating benami[2] bank accounts and scaling benami bank transactions. It threatens to destroy your bank accounts and destroy the country’s banking system. It’s devastating that the integrity of banking processes is being destroyed by dividing, outsourcing and privatising processes integral to core banking so that they become the responsibility of no one.

Destroying the banking system

India’s Department of Revenue (DoR) has done it again.

On June 1, 2017 vide Notification №2/F .No. P.12011/11/2016-ES Cell-DOR it mandates the linking of every bank account with an Aadhaar number before December 31, 2017. While lawyers point out several illegalities, including the scope, of the notification of this subordinate legislation under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), the failure of the DoR to consistently protect national interest is unbelievable.

A few days back a co-panelist on a TV channel defended the DoR arguing that linking Aadhaar to Bank Accounts will weed out money laundering by verifying bank accounts. What my co-panelist did not say is money laundering is facilitated by creating benami accounts. It is also facilitated by benami transactions. Nor did my co-panelist explain how benami accounts happen or how benami transactions are scaled by money-launderers.

This latest notification ensures that the Trojan horse that they instilled into the banking system on January 27, 2011, will destroy the Indian economy along with the Indian banking system. As feared by the Reserve Bank of India before January 2011, Aadhaar is yet the best state sponsored enabling mechanism for money launderers to enable benami bank accounts. Aadhaar can even help the money launderer to take over your bank accounts. Aadhaar is also the enabler to scale benami transactions.

Here are just 5 ways in which linking the Aadhaar to PAN[3] or a bank account will hurt you, destroy India and, for those who care, an explanation of how Aadhaar creates benami bank accounts and scales benamitransactions.

The innocent will lose money, reputation and access to justice, dignity and livelihood

One, the innocent will lose money, reputation and access to justice, dignity and livelihood as their Aadhaar numbers can act as mules for money laundering, their subsidy and other Aadhaar enabled payments can be easily compromised, their access to their own bank accounts be denied, or they can be framed for economic offences. Helpless citizens and businesses may also find themselves at the receiving end of covert human rights violations as even their access to money and existence is disabled by deactivation or blocking of Aadhaar leaving no recourse to survival.

Linking Aadhaar to bank accounts or PAN converts India into the new tax haven for money launderers

Two, linking Aadhaar to bank accounts or PAN converts India into the new tax haven for money launderers as it becomes easy to remotely create benamiaccounts and operate benami transactions while claiming complete legitimacy. This will destroy India’s economy and governance.

Financing crime and terrorism will grow uncontrollably

Three, financing crime and terrorism will grow uncontrollably as it becomes increasingly difficult to discover, report or close down such operations. This will make it impossible to ensure national security as the rule of law is destroyed.

Corruption will increase

Four, corruption will increase as it becomes easier when proceeds will not be traceable to the corrupt. It will be increasingly difficult to restore swarajya and impossible to ensure suraiya.

Banks will not be able to contain non-performing-assets

Five, banks will not be able to contain non-performing-assets, fraud and financial misappropriation as the real users of banking services will be untraceable. The economy will be completely out of control as the black and white economies become indistinguishable.

We are in a policy vacuum as the NITI Aayog and the bureaucracy have failed to recognise the Trojan horse and protect national interest. Unless the RBI de-licenses the payments systems based on Aadhaar (AEPS) immediately and the government stays linking Aadhaar to PAN and bank accounts, our leadership will have failed to protect India from this fast colonisation of India by the private interests driving Aadhaar.

Enabling Benami Bank Accounts

Benami accounts get created when banks fail to identify the real customers who own the accounts. The Panama Papers exposed data of thousands of benami accounts created through a Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca. The Panama Papers exposed one modus operandi of hiding the real owners of the assets in tax havens.

panama papers modus operandi
The use of Aadhaar as KYC for bank accounts is similar to the note from Panama Law Firm Mossack Fonseca saying “they are an honest client”

Prudent bankers recognise the importance of knowing who they bank with. It is no wonder that the RBI had warned, right from before the Trojan horse was instilled in to the RBI in 2011, that the Aadhaar enrolment process does not have due diligence. It pointed out that for Aadhaar enrolment verification is not compulsory, as confirmed by the UIDAI in the Demographic Data Standards and Verification Procedure, and does not require document based verification.

The RBI also highlighted that such use of Aadhaar as third party identification is against Prevention of Money Laundering Act, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and the paper issued on Customer Due Diligence (CDD) for banks by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision and circulated to scheduled commercial banks by the RBI on November 29, 2004.

The RBI also observed that a fixed time document like the Aadhaar cannot be a Proof of Address. It further cautioned using Business Correspondents (BC), to open bank accounts or undertake banking transactions, as the vulnerability of the system has not been tested and co-mingling funds of different banks in the hands of BC’s was a major operational risk to the banks. While resisting the use of Aadhaar, the RBI also highlighted the Government’s concern about the perceived misuse of such accounts for terrorist financing.

Under pressure from the UIDAI and the Department of Revenue, Ministry of Finance, the RBI, through its circular dated January 27, 2011, allowed bank accounts to be opened exclusively on the basis of Aadhaar number. However the RBI required such accounts to be put to restrictions and be subjected to conditions and limitations prescribed for small accounts.

Not happy with the restrictions, the UIDAI pressed the RBI to lift the restrictions placed on accounts opened with Aadhaar numbers under the PMLA. On September 28, 2011, again through the Department of Revenue, the UIDAI succeeded in getting the RBI to backtrack and suspend the restrictions of the PMLA on bank accounts opened solely through Aadhaar. The UIDAI also succeeded in causing the RBI further to accept eKYC or remotely using information associated with an Aadhaar number as KYC. According to the UIDAI eKYC brings scale to the ease of onboarding customers.

To put the problem in perspective, Aadhaar enrolment was completely outsourced to private parties by the UIDAI with the sole aim of building the worlds largest biometric database. Mr. Nilekani’s UIDAI repeatedly emphasised that they merely provided a framework to issue a number and store the (unverified and unaudited) data.

RTI says Aadhaar has never been verified or audited
UIDAI admits that the Aadhaar (UID) database has never been verified or audited

No one from the UIDAI or even the government even sign the Aadhaar card that is mailed back to the enrolee. The very same organisations that were declared by the UIDAI as holding databases full of ghosts and duplicates were asked to serve as “Registrars” to the enrolment process. They were even given flexibility in the collection, retention and use of the data (including biometric) that they collected.

Without a verification and audit Aadhaar enables duplicates and ghosts
Without a verification and audit Aadhaar enables duplicates and ghosts

No one in the Aadhaar enrolment process was required to identify anyone. At best they had to merely verify documents that were submitted for enrolment. Needless to say anyone in possession of your documents could enrol with minor changes in any demographic information or with different biometrics. Field stories of enrolments are replete with descriptions of biometric jugaad including using combination of persons, use of biometric masks, biometric modifications, and other ingenious methods to maximise registrations.

According to the IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, 34,000 operators who tried to make fake Aadhaar Cards have been blacklisted. Even if each operator worked for a year before being blacklisted, at about 100 cards a day amounts to over a billion cards. That is more than 95 percent of the database. The Aadhaar enrolment has been unlike that of any other identity document, easily scaling the creation of duplicate and ghost identities.

Excrept of IT Minister Ravi Shanker Prasad’s reply in Rajya Sabha on April 10, 2017
Excrept of IT Minister Ravi Shanker Prasad’s reply in Rajya Sabha on April 10, 2017

While there is widespread belief that biometric authentication at time of opening a bank account prevents benami, it ignores the field realities of mobile phone SIM cards being issued on Aadhaar photocopies and used to open bank accounts, of having remotely “downloadable” accounts, and also plain simple use of photocopies of Aadhaar or parallel Aadhaar databases to open bank accounts. With Aadhaar, banks do not have any trace of the real customer. The real customer is simply masked by a benami owner using an Aadhaar number.
Even your Aadhaar can be used, without your knowledge, by a perpetrator to open multiple accounts in order to use it to collect bribes, park black money, or siphon your subsidies. In the eyes of law enforcement, if these accounts are discovered, you will be the criminal.

benami money laundering aadhaar bank account
Is Aadhaar the new Panama?

To compound the problem, UIDAI has no liability for benami bank accounts opened with Aadhaar. After the introduction of the Aadhaar to open bank accounts, the accounts and deposits have doubled in 5 years. No one knows who really controls these accounts.

Growth of bank accounts and deposits in India
Growth of bank accounts and deposits in India

Enabling Benami transactions

Even when it had no mandate to develop banking platforms, in 2009, the UIDAI signed an MoU with the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI), a non government company, to develop an Aadhaar Enabled Payment System (AEPS). In this MoU the UIDAI has no responsibility for your banking transactions and the NPCI has no obligation to the RBI. The payment system uses the Aadhaar linked to a bank account as a financial address to do electronic money transfers from one Aadhaar number to another.

Company data for NPCI
Company data for NPCI

Unless an Aadhaar is linked to the account, the AEPS cannot access the bank account. Linking a PAN to the Aadhaar will have the same effect as linking the Aadhaar to a bank account as the PAN is already linked to the bank account. Such accounts become Aadhaar enabled. Aadhaar enabled bank accounts are ready to be used by the AEPS for Aadhaar to Aadhaar money transfers.

Linking an Aadhaar to a bank account is done through a process called as “seeding” an Aadhaar number to a bank account. After receiving the Aadhaar number from the customer, the bank uploads such numbers’ into a “NPCI mapper” or a repository of Aadhaar numbers and Institution Identification Number (IIN) numbers used for the purpose of routing transactions to the destination banks. The IIN is a unique 6-digit number issued by NPCI to the participating bank. If you or anyone else seed your Aadhaar with another bank account, the NPCI mapper is overwritten with the new banks’ IIN. Money transferred to an Aadhaar number, using the Aadhaar Enabled Payment System, gets transferred to the bank account linked to the Aadhaar number at the branch recognised by the IIN.

A money launderer can transfer money to an account linked to an alternate IIN and then re-seed the NPCI’s mapper with the original IIN for the Aadhaar number, completely wiping out any trace of money to the alternate IIN. Like transactions of bearer shares in Panama, such money transfers becomes no different from a hawala[4] transaction between real parties who remain anonymous or benami[5].

Your Aadhaar number can be used to facilitate such benami money transfers. If these money transfers linked to your Aadhaar number are detected by investigation officers or tax authorities, you, not the real operator will be held on suspicion of economic offences.

The NPCI’s idea of Aadhaar to Aadhaar banking itself is flawed. It is surprising if the RBI has licensed this payment system under the Payment and Settlements Act.

All money is ultimately stored in bank accounts and not in the name of a person. Nowhere in the world does one transfer money to a person, you transfer it to a persons account. Money transfers to and from a bank account makes every money transfer traceable from source to destination making money laundering difficult, if not impossible.

Hawala schemes make money transfers untraceable by eliminating the bank accounts. Money transfers that, like the hawala, are based on the premise that you do not share an account number, with someone transferring money to you, are inherently flawed in auditability as they wipe out the money trail.

The idea of a mapper, as used by NPCI’s AEPS, does not allow for instructions from sender but relies on periodic update of IIN in the NPCI’s table mapping Aadhaar numbers from banks. As multiple banks have to upload the Aadhaar numbers seeded with accounts held by them, this cannot guarantee desired results.

Perhaps the worst aspect of the mapper is that it slices the business process and outsources parts. This destroys the responsibility of the payment system from any single party as was in the case of NEFT or RTGS. Neither the NPCI, the UIDAI or the banks are responsible in such money transfers. They merely provide “look-up” services. In this system, a single compromised or rogue bank branch, or the perpetuator’s ability to exploit a good one, is enough to siphon off subsidy, park black money or take bribes.

Such money transfers would be difficult, if not impossible, to trace without a whistleblower. A few cases have been reported that suggest the large scale play of this scenario already. For example more than 40,000 erroneous transfers were reported through AEPS in DBT transfers meant as part of drought relief for farmers in Karnataka. The government allegedly blamed the banks for failure to seed the correct Aadhaar numbers with the beneficiaries.

Governments across India had been using the RBI’s own payment system, the NEFT or RTGS, to undertake electronic money transfers. This is also evidenced by the fact that Aadhaar Leaks has exposed that bank details are already present in every record of the leaked data. There is absolutely no reason to switch public payments from NEFT to AEPS, run by a non-government company.

The replacement of a time tested standard of electronic money transfers under government regulation by a non-standard payment system run by a non-government company raises several serious questions of national and public interest, propriety and possible conflicts of interest.

Preventing disaster

If the government and the Supreme Court implement the wisdom of 7 orders of the Supreme Court of India on the use of Aadhaar, they can yet save the country from disaster resulting from the colonisation of India by the new East India Companies or the private interests driving Aadhaar.

In its first order of September 23, 2011 the Supreme Court had indicated that “no person should suffer for not getting the Aadhaar card inspite of the fact that some authority had issued a circular making it mandatory and when any person applies to get the Aadhaar Card voluntarily”.

On August 11, 2015, the 3 member bench restricted the use of Aadhaar and indicated that it may not be used for any other purpose.

On October 15, 2015, a 5 member bench led by the Chief Justice had emphasised that “the Aadhaar card Scheme is purely voluntary and it cannot be made mandatory till the matter is finally decided by this Court”. It had restricted the voluntary use of Aadhaar to public distribution system (PDS) Scheme, the liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) distribution scheme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), National Social Assistance Programme (Old Age Pensions, Widow Pensions, Disability Pensions), Prime Minister’s Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) and Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO).

In the meantime, following Mahatma Gandhi’s footsteps and refusing to link Aadhaar to anything may be the only option left for you.

On 10 January 1908 Mahatma Gandhi was arrested for the first time in South Africa for refusing to carry an obligatory identity document card commonly known as the ‘pass’.

[1] Aadhaar is a 12 digit random number assigned by India’s Unique Identification Authority of India to unaudited and unverified demographic and biometric information submitted by private enrollers.
[2] Accounts and transactions undertaken using a ghost or a duplicate identity are called benami.
[3] Permanent Account Number or PAN is a number used to track financial transactions and file income tax returns in India.
[4] Hawala is an alternative or parallel remittance system that works outside formal banking systems.
[5] This was first highlighted in September 2014 in http://www.moneylife.in/article/how-aadhaar-linkage-can-destroy-banks/38736.html

 

Originally published here.

Democracies are expected to empower citizens to take genuine control of instruments of the state for their development. At the core of this concept is the idea that citizens will participate in governance at the local level, making decisions for themselves, and vote in representatives to legislatures for higher-level decisions. India is an implausible democracy, an audacious experiment, attempting to bring together a billion people with starkly different languages, religions, and food habits. However, the state of our democracy remains perilous, a country hanging on by a slender thread to its claim to being defined a democracy. Like with many other aspects famously considered ‘Indian’, our democracy is a mediocre one, fulfilling satisfactorily, only the most basic requirement of regular (and reasonably free and fair) elections. Democratic accountability in particular, appears particularly at risk, as we the people, have fewer ways to hold those in power responsible for their performance.

Four scenarios raising concerns about democratic accountability currently playing out in India:

Propaganda rules over facts

Late last year, the central government pulled off ‘Demonetisation’, an exercise in purging cash reserves of the political opposition after ensuring the ruling party’s own reserves were safely parked (or converted) well in time. Manipulation of the press by political parties through direct funding (or proxy measures) continues unabated, as news channels spectacularly out-do the state broadcaster in peddling propaganda. The true extent of damage caused by Demonetisation will never be known — not because we do not have the tools to measure the damage, but because voters are being herded like sheep, not to ask any questions. As a result, the Reserve Bank of India can get away without releasing key data, and the lack of that data need not deter the government from making grandiose statements that go almost completely unchallenged in the public domain. Those who do question, do it with the knowledge that nit-picking on facts is futile.

Dissent is anti-national

The state’s response to dissent continues to plumb new depths. Civil society voices have been muted, farmer/dalit protests are killed in cahoots with a friendly media, etc. Those speaking up against the rampant terrorism in the name of the cow, or the fast-receding freedom of the press, are labelled anti-national. Dissent, whether from the grassroots or from intellectuals in society, are continuously demonised by a government that seems to take pride in its own anti-intellectualism, and celebration of mediocrity as evident from the various appointments to institutions of repute. Activists are being silenced everywhere. Today, Medha Patkar languishes in jail, as a government utterly insensitive to citizen protests makes no conciliatory move.Decimation of political opposition: A string of election defeats, poor public image, still quite unable to overcome the ‘corruption stains’, a lethargic party, and a seemingly disinterested leader — it is the perfect storm for the Indian National

Decimation of political opposition

A string of election defeats, poor public image, still quite unable to overcome the ‘corruption stains’, a lethargic party, and a seemingly disinterested leader — it is the perfect storm for the Indian National Congress, and a sign of the times for political opposition in India. This decimation is now fully reflected in the composition of India’s Parliament, and the erosion of checks and balances that the Legislature is supposed to have over the Executive In a parliamentary system. The few states that are not ruled by the BJP get undue attention from partisan Governors and federal anti-corruption agencies. The use of the Governor’s office as a pawn in the hands of the central government must evoke a sense of deja-vu. Politics that seemed to have matured in the last fifteen years or so now lies in tatters.

Narcissism and hero-worship

When the BJP government recently completed three years in office, the government launched the MODI Fest — the Making of Developed India festival. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s monthly Mann Ki Baat speeches were released as a book at an event in the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Every government scheme is credited to only one man, and no failures are ever pinned on him. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, Modi-bhakti seems to be his second-last weapon of choice.

The point overall is this — to celebrate our incredible democracy, it is not enough to just conduct every five years, and for everyone to accept the election results. That is a very low bar. What matters is the quality of our democracy as measured by how the polity, the people, and the institutions operate once elections are over.

By this measure, India’s democracy has a long way to go. The systematic destruction of institutions, which need to function with a degree of competence and independence, will eventually kill our democracy. In the last three years, our institutions have shown themselves to be utterly incapable of protecting themselves from a government with authoritarian tendencies. The power that we have to hold public officials and politicians to account is directly proportionate to the credibility of institutions of governance. The way the Reserve Bank of India has folded in the last nine months should be serious cause for concern. The repeated attempts at politicising the military forces, the bellowing nationalistic media, our sanskari cultural guardians, and the uber-patriotic people’s representatives — together foretell a scary future for India.

The immediate casualty has been democratic accountability. No one seems to be responsible for the sluggish economy, now showing alarming signs of slipping into deflation. Similarly, no one seems responsible for breakdown in public services that the government is responsible for, nor is anyone held accountable for the questionable and inconsistent foreign policy decisions. Neither national security, nor corruption or cronyism seem to be topical any longer. Vigilantes break the law with impunity, as representatives of government hail them as patriots.

It is a great tragedy that after completing seventy years as a proud independent nation, our democracy is faced with such an existential crisis. If you are a liberal progressive Indian, this spectre should concern you.

*****

A short addendum

A friend pointed out that none of this is “new” — that this has been the nature of politics in India, and indeed, is something I recognise in this column on politics and power:
It is in the nature of a government to exercise power. Every political party in power manifests power in one form or the other — never mind if the one exercising it is being labelled ‘Left’ or ‘Right’. Often, these labels allow us the convenience of picking sides based on who we like, rather than the issue at hand. This only serves to lower the quality of public debate. In reality, it would appear that at their extremities, the Left and Right are indistinguishable; and that is a clue that what we need to really discern is the manner in which both sides choose to exercise power. And for citizens unaffiliated with these labels, understanding power is the first step towards engaging with it.

The exercise of power, and the “feudal” nature of politics in India is a reality. And yet, there is distinct shift in the pattern that we need to recognise. A government running amok with little counter-balance from the Legislature or the Press, and an inconsistent Judiciary has created an unique operating environment. Political parties that are now emaciated are of course responsible for their own fates, but the corporate control of the media (and an organised effort on social media) has emboldened the current government in ways we haven’t seen in recent years. And while ordinary citizens and observers cannot replace a conventional political opposition, we need to keep demanding accountability from the government — ultimately, that is the essence of a democracy. The voters may yet surprise us again, (who knows!), but this column is about holding governments to account in between two successive elections.

Originally published here.

3

Was the demonetisation a success or failure? Various government claims and the subsequent lacklustre results leave no doubt that the demonetisation has resulted in no significant utility to the nation and caused considerable damage.

 

Demonetization
success or failure?

8th November 2016 - 86% of Indian currency was wiped overnight

The Claims

Minor inconvenience

Black money would be destroyed

Initial news of massive raids. Political opponents targeted. News of currency seized from various people. Widespread understanding among critics and supporters alike that the objective was to strangle cash flows (legal or otherwise) of political opponents during the upcoming election campaign in Uttar Pradesh.

ISI fake currency thwarted

Fake currency notes would lose value when the notes it copied were illegitimate

Widely criticized through various versions of "amputating a leg to lose weight" or "bombing a city to kill criminals in it", this was an irrational goal to begin with, to go through an exercise of this magnitude, expense and cost to economy to flush out a relatively minor number of notes that would at best lose value they didn't have to begin with.

Prevent counterfeiting

The new notes would have special security features to prevent counterfeiting

Initial reports in media suggested that the new notes would have special features that prevented counterfeiting them. At the very least, having to imitiate a new design would slow the counterfeiters down and reduce the amount of fake currency in circulation.

Various reports in a pliant news media even took claims of special GPS chips embedded in notes and discussed them seriously, creating a perception among the masses that the new notes would be extraordinarily resistant to misuse or imitation.

Tax Collection would increase

Almost 25% increase in tax collection has been unquestioningly gushed over by a pliant media. This increase in tax collection has been attributed to demonetisation.

The Reality

Massive disruption

Unclear how much black money was recovered

Having cash in itself is not illegal, unless it is established that the cash would not be accounted for while paying taxes. Seizing it without evidence of wrongdoing probably is, but the government legally created impunity for tax officials, who are no longer required to explain their actions to anyone..

Fake currency made legitimate!!!

The reckless demonetisation did not allow for examining notes

The relentless crowds and high stress environment at banks did not allow for adequate examination of notes deposited and the overall understanding is that a large number of fake notes got deposited and converted into real money in accounts or converted to new currency - in effect robbing the country far worse than them being in circulation.

Easier counterfeiting

The new notes had no special features that prevented counterfeiting

The new notes are of poor quality and apparently easier to counterfeit. Various leaders and affiliates of the ruling party have been caught with counterfeited notes and the equipment to make more. The trust in the notes is very low and "even the real notes look fake". Hurried printing has resulted in real notes not having all features they should have.

Among early news of counterfeiting included school children who had photocopied a Rs.2000 note and used it to dupe a sweets shop owner when they purchased treats using it.

There has been no change

Tax collection has been increasing year on year for a long time now, and if you look at the trend over the years, this year's increase in collection fits the curve.


The country would profit

Unreturned money would be money taken away from criminals

82% of the money demonetised was rapidly returned to the banks about a fortnight before the last date to deposit demonetised notes, and the crowds continued unabated way after the RBI stopped updating figures on money returned. It has been over 7 months now and they still have not given out the final figures related with demonetisation, .

RBI would transfer profits to the government

RBI transferred Rs 30,659 crore as surplus to govt. This is lower than the Rs 65,876 crore last year - less than even half the amount. The budget has assumed Rs 75,000 crore would come from RBI and PSBs.

Not just is the windfall absent, the government has not even been able to reach half the amount of the previous year.

The windfall from demonetisation would fund welfare

In addition to the losses made by the government, the citizens have made losses - from disruption and decimation of livelihoods to time taken off daily wage work and expenses.

There will be no benefit/compensation to them. Likely, a reduction of existing benefits will happen due to the lack of funds this "minor inconvenience" will cause.

Yep, demonetisation has been every bit of the clusterfuck it had been predicted to be, and we are not even close to recovering from the damage done.