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India’s Demonetization Disaster

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's November 8 announcement that 86% of the country's currency would be removed from circulation at the stroke of midnight has plunged the economy into chaos. And the worst part is that it may all be for nothing.

NE W DELHI – On November 8, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that, at the stroke of midnight, some 14 trillion rupees worth of 500- and 1,000-rupee notes – 86% of all the currency in circulation – would no longer be legal tender. With that, India’s economy was plunged into chaos.

Modi’s stated goal was to make good on his campaign pledge to fight “black money”: the illicit proceeds – often held as cash – of tax evasion, crime, and corruption. He also hoped to render worthless the counterfeit notes reportedly printed by Pakistan to fuel terrorism against India. Nearly a month later, however, all the demonetization drive has achieved is severe economic disruption. Far from being a masterstroke, Modi’s decision seems to have been a miscalculation of epic proportions.

The announcement immediately triggered a mad scramble to unload the expiring banknotes. Though people have until the end of the year to deposit the notes in bank accounts, doing so in large quantities could expose them to high taxes and fines. So they rushed to gas pumps, to jewelry shops, and to creditors to repay loans. Long queues snaked in, out, and around banks, foreign-exchange counters, and ATMs – anywhere where people might exchange the soon-to-be-defunct notes.

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