»Vivek Kaul's Diary

Demonetisation: How Much of Black Money is in Cash
13 DECEMBER 2016


One of the original aims of demonetisation was to eliminate "Black Money which casts a long shadow of parallel economy on our real economy."

Since then through some deft marketing, the prime minister Narendra Modi has shifted the goal of demonetisation towards going cashless and digital payments. Nevertheless, given the fact that demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes was carried out to curb black money, it is worth asking how much black money did Indians hold in the form of cash.

Black money is essentially money which has been earned through legal as well as illegal means but on which tax has not been paid. It is also important to understand that people do not hold all their black money in the form of cash in their homes. They convert it into gold and real estate, and move it abroad to tax havens. From there it comes back through Foreign Institutional Investors(FIIs) and is invested in the stock market as well as debt market.

Hence, black money can be held in several forms. From real estate to gold to bonds to stocks. And of course, cash as well. The idea behind demonetising Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes was to hurt those who stored black money in the form of cash.

As the government press release accompanying the demonetisation decision pointed out: "Use of high denomination notes for storage of unaccounted wealth has been evident from cash recoveries made by law enforcement agencies from time to time. High denomination notes are known to facilitate generation of black money."

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This essentially leads to the question what portion of black money was held in the form of cash. In May 2012, the finance ministry released a White Paper on Black Money. And that had some very interesting data points. Take a look at the Table 1 below, which deals with the search and seizure operations carried out by the income tax department.

Table 1: Value of assets seized (in Rs. Crore)
YearCashJewelleryOther assetsTotal Undisclosed Income
Admitted (in Rs Crore)
Source: White Paper on Black Money

The cash seized at the time the search and seizure operations were carried out by the income tax department, is a small portion of the total undisclosed income. This becomes clear from Table 2.

Table 2:
YearCashTotal Undisclosed Income
Admitted (in Rs Crore)
Proportion of cash in total
undisclosed wealth
Source: Author calculations based on White Paper on Black Money

If we look at data for the period of six years of close to 24,000 seizure and search operations, cash formed 4.9 per cent of the undisclosed wealth. Also, the proportion varied from 3.7 per cent to 7.4 per cent over the years.

What this data tells us is that people who have black money do not store it in the form of cash. There are better ways of storing that wealth.

The next question that crops up here is that what is the total amount of black money in India. The official sources of the total amount of black money in the economy as a proportion of Indian GDP are very old. Take a look at Table 3.

Table 3:
YearBlack money as a
percent of GDP
1975-197615 to 18
1980-198118 to 21
1983-198419 to 21
NIPFP estimate. Source: White Paper on Black Money.

As the White Paper on Black Money published in May 2012 points out: "The last official study for estimating black money generation was conducted at the behest of the Ministry of Finance by the NIPFP [National Institute of Public Finance and Policy] in 1985."

In 2010, the World Bank came up with estimates of the size of black money in India between 1999 and 2007. Take a look at Table 4.

Table 4:
YearBlack money as a
percent of GDP
Source: World Bank

Both the White Paper on Black Money and the recent press release on demonetisation refer to these data points. But they end up flipping the figures. As the press release on demonetisation points out: "The World Bank in July, 2010 estimated the size of the shadow economy for India at 20.7% of the GDP in 1999 and rising to 23.2% in 2007." As can be seen from Table 4, this is exactly the opposite of the World Bank figures.

I wonder how a mistake of this kind can be made in the case of something as important as demonetisation is. I guess what must have happened is that the Babu drafting the demonetisation press release must have lifted the figures straight from the White Paper on Black Money, which had them wrong in the first place.

Anyway, the nit-picking aside, what these data points clearly tell us is that the black money in India amounts to around one-fifth of the GDP. The Indian Gross Domestic Product (current prices) for 2015-2016 stood at Rs 135.76 lakh crore. Hence, the total amount of black money amounts to Rs 27.15 lakh crore, using these estimates.

Data from the search and seizure operations of the Income Tax Department tells us that black money in the form of cash forms just 4.9 per cent of the total black money. This means that the total black money in the form of cash amounts to Rs 1.33 lakh crore (4.9 per cent of Rs 27.15 lakh crore). This is the money that the government is going after through demonetisation.

The question is, is this worth all the trouble? Take a look at Table 5.

Table 5: Recovery of Black Money
Financial yearSeized assets
(in Rs. Crore)
Undisclosed income
(in Rs. Crore)
2015-2016(up to November 2015)4706,167
Source: Annual reports, Ministry of Finance.

Table 5 clearly shows the limited abilities of the Income Tax Department when it comes to digging up black money in the economy. Even if we ignore this and assume that this time around given the government focus, the Income Tax Department will be able to do better, the question is how much better?

The total amount of black money in the form of cash amounts to Rs 1.33 lakh crore. If the government can recover 50 per cent of this, by taxing it, it amounts to around Rs 66,000 crore. The fall in GDP growth because of demonetisation will turn out to be much greater than this. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy estimates that just the transaction cost of demonetisation will amount to Rs 1.28 lakh crore.

To conclude, this brings us back to the question, whether all this was worth the trouble?

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