NEW DELHI - The heated debate over India's cash ban continues, with critics saying it slowed an economy that was growing, while the government says economic momentum was barely affected.
Critics say the scrapping of 86 percent of the country's currency last November cost India its status as the world’s fastest growing economy.
According to data released this week, from January to March, growth plunged to 6.1 percent – lower than China's 6.9 percent growth in the same period.
Overall growth for the last financial year, which began in April 2016 and ended in March 2017, however, stood at 7.1 percent.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has tried to distance the disappointing economic numbers from the currency ban, citing other factors.
“There was some slowdown visible, given the global and domestic situation, even prior to demonetization in the last year,” he told reporters.
The slowdown affected almost all sectors of the economy, with farming, manufacturing and services all taking a hit. With people scrambling to get access to new notes, consumption slowed sharply, impacting both small shopkeepers and large businesses.
The government, however, is encouraged by forecasts that the economy is expected to recover swiftly on the back of monsoon rains, which are expected to be plentiful, and a slew of major reform measures.
As economists estimated growth this year will rebound to 7.4 percent, the government pointed out that India’s economy is still among the world’s top performers. Jaitley said given the global scenario, "7 to 8 percent growth, which at the moment is the Indian normal, is fairly reasonable and by global standards very good."
There are widespread expectations of a major economic boost from India’s most ambitious tax reform action since independence – the launch of a nationwide tax that will replace a plethora of levies starting July 1.
The World Bank said this week the reform would lower the cost of doing business for firms and reduce logistics costs.
In the coming year, “we actually have very strong fundamentals of the Indian economy, GDP growth being up, exports have revived and there has been continued reform momentum,” said Frederico Gil Sander, a senior economist at the World Bank in New Delhi.
And while demonetization undoubtedly left its imprint on India by slowing down the economy, the government is optimistic there will be long-term gains because the move would help clean up an economy where many businesses and professionals evade taxes, resulting in the generation of what is known as “black money.”
“The message has gone loud and clear and it continues to this day that it is no longer safe to deal in cash,” said Jaitley.
Skeptics say only improved tax collections in the coming years will demonstrate whether that is true, or whether tax evasion remains a challenge in a country where cash transactions are the norm in large sectors of the economy.