Oh! to be in Estonia

I wonder how many people in India would even be aware that there is a country on planet Earth called Estonia. Tucked away in the Baltic corner of Europe, Estonia was one of the republics constituting the former USSR. The dissolution of the Soviet Republic in 1991 saw Estonia, along with a clutch of other erstwhile republics, achieve her separate identity. But what is truly remarkable about this small country of barely 1. 3 million people with a geographical area straddling not even 50,000 square kilometres is the rapid strides she has made in the digital revolution sweeping the globe. Estonia has an e-police, e-schools and an e-cabinet: you can now even apply for e-residency in that country. Estonia is virtually the digital hub for Eastern Europe and hosts the NATO Centre for Cyber Excellence. Not that digital progress does not come without a price; Estonia was literally brought to her knees by a major cyber-attack by Russian hackers some eight years ago and, has since, tightened cyber security measures. Her logic for offering e-residence facilities to non-citizens is, among other reasons, aimed at facilitating access to the European market to foreign investors at minimal cost and with a minimum of tiresome legal formalities.

No, I am not planning a shift to Estonia. The weather there is too cold, one has to keep worrying about a possible Russian re-takeover of the country and I am too tied to the earth of Bharat Mata. But I do think wistfully of Estonia’s e-topia whenever I run into India’s bureaucratic conundrums. The latest one is something called the FATCA declaration. For the uninitiated, this acronym stands for “Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act”. India and United States of America have an agreement under which the governments of the two countries will exchange information on taxable transactions by residents in the respective countries. So far, so good…but what gets my goat is the declaration to be signed by every Bharatiya whenever she opens a demat account or commences mutual fund trading, specifying her country of citizenship and place of residence. I am all for unearthing stashing of black money in safe tax havens, but getting over 99% of Bharatiyas, many of whom have not even crossed the Palk Straits or the Wagah check post, to sign one more silly document is surely the height of bureaucratic stupidity. More so, because these Bharatiyas generally transact through banking channels, where details about their citizenship, place of residence, etc. are already available with the banks.

But even the meaninglessness of FATCA pales before that other abomination, inflicted on us by the mandarins of the Finance Ministry, infamously known as KYC. Used by banks, gas agencies, mobile companies and sundry others to harry the unsuspecting customer, KYC officially stands for Know Your Customer. To my mind, it stands for Keep You Confused. I suspect that each time there is a change of Finance Minister or Finance Secretary in the Government of India, 600 million bank customers are once again asked to confirm their place of residence. Why else has one had to go through this exercise three times in the past six years? It is not as though seeking
address details leads to lesser tax evasion or concealment of ill-gotten gains. We read daily about the number of fake accounts being uncovered in reputed private and government-owned banks: the mind boggles at what may be going on in cooperative banks.

As a matter of fact, asking for residential details of a customer wanting to open a bank account is itself a source of harassment to a citizen who moves for employment to different parts of the country every couple of years. I have read horror stories of young professionals who had to run from pillar to post to open a bank account when they moved in to stay with their parents and had no independent proof of residence. If the customer retains her bank account at the branch near her earlier residence and largely transacts through internet banking, she still needs to update her address to receive new debit and credit cards or for other transactions like securing loans. The agency that provides a service will invariably insist on a document like the Aadhaar card, passport and driving license or ration card for proof of residence, although a recently relocated customer is unlikely to have the new address on any of these documents. Nor do banks follow a uniform procedure for accepting address changes. One private bank allows for change of address through phone banking, while others ask for scanned copies of address proof. What defies comprehension is why the individual who can transfer/withdraw lakhs of rupees through net banking transactions cannot be trusted to change her address through the same net banking channel, without further verification. This underlines government’s basic lack of trust of the citizen and its permanent suspicion about her motives.

I have also not understood why the Aadhaar card needs to have the address on it at all. As a pan-India identity symbol, it is enough if it testifies to the fact of Indian residency. Updating the address every few years is an avoidable irritant for the geographically and socially mobile Indian: the fate of her economically worse-off migrant sisters and brothers is much more difficult to envision. Equally meaningless is the police verification at the time of issue or renewal of a passport, when any police station would have the list of persons whose record does not entitle them to issue of a passport. The police constable visits the house of a passport-seeker just to verify if she does stay there, never mind if the person moves house a few days after that. All this exercise does is to give a few more rent-seeking opportunities to the official machinery. It has not prevented gangsters and underworld henchmen from acquiring multiple passports at the drop of a hat.

Actually, the concept of a permanent residential address is so antiquated and irrelevant for members of the post-independence Indian domestic diaspora, who (and whose parents) have travelled wherever their employment took them. Most of us today have virtual email addresses that have survived longer than our present residential addresses. So when will our beloved Bharat be rid of this medieval fetish for permanent addresses? Probably when we move in the course of the next few months and years to a cashless economy. Once every transaction of ours leaves an electronic trail, there will be
no need for any officious Finance Ministry bureaucrat to insist on an address. Till then, may I request the powers that be to content themselves with a correspondence address and trust the individual citizen when she furnishes that address?

Demonetization – Phase 2 – from cash to cashless

The first month of demonetization has been a trying one: long queues, frayed nerves, some panic and the usual meaningless political drama. Now that the genie has been let out of the bottle, it makes more sense to work out the future steps than to flog the dead horse. I chanced on a news item where a Pune-based not-for-profit outfit, Arthakranti, has claimed credit for planting the idea in the Prime Minister’s brain. Unfortunately, they have also pointed out that, of their recommendations, the government of India implemented only one. Since not many would have gone through their suggestions, I am detailing them below, along with my views on the way ahead, as well as two critical issues that will need a push from the government if the cashless economy is to become a reality in the not so distant future.

Withdrawal of high denomination notes (₹ 1000, 500 and 100) from circulation was the one recommendation that has largely been implemented. Arthakranti had, however, proposed a phased withdrawal programme starting with the ₹ 1000 note, then the ₹ 500 note and finally the ₹ 100 note, spread over three six-month periods, with an adequate supply of newly printed notes of the next lower denomination to substitute for the withdrawn currency note. Finally, the highest denomination note in circulation was to be the ₹ 50 note. Without trying to guess the compulsions of the government in rushing through such a monumental process in fifty days without ensuring adequate supply of currency of legal denominations, there is no denying that much pain has been caused to the general public, apart from the man-days lost in queues and the depression in economic activity just when the kharif crop has been harvested and the rabi sowing is due. Having done what it did, the government should now move towards a gradual phase out of the ₹ 2000 and ₹ 500 notes, probably over the next 12 to 18 months, with adequate provision of ₹ 100 notes to avoid the situation we went through in November. I would advocate continuing with the ₹ 100 note for at least another three to five years till cashless payment systems are firmly established as the preferred transactional mode.

A cap on legal cash transactions of ₹ 2000 has tentatively been proposed by Arthakranti. Given the large number of unbanked Indians and the gestation period that will be needed for cashless payment systems to be put in place, I would be more comfortable with a cap set at ₹ 10000 for the period when the ₹ 100 note continues to be legal tender, with the cap being reduced to ₹ 5000 once ₹ 50 is the highest currency note in circulation. Any transaction in cash above this cap should be made illegal and liable for punitive action.

The truly revolutionary recommendation of Arthakranti is the replacement of all domestic direct and indirect taxes (central, state and local) by a banking transaction tax (BTT), with only import and export duties continuing in respect of internationally traded goods and services. This is tantamount to killing many birds with one stone. Coupled with the cap on legal cash transactions, this brings every transacting citizen into the tax net. Any transaction through a bank account (with automatically attached Aadhar and PAN card details) attracts a BTT of 2 percent, as suggested by Arthakranti. The BTT is added to the transaction value and deducted from the amount realised by the payee. The BTT realised is shared between central, state and local governments and the banking intermediary. With the tax net covering all transactions over ₹ 10000 (ultimately ₹ 5000), the system can be revenue-neutral even at a rate which is barely 7% of the currently highest marginal income tax rate or 10% of the anticipated GST rate. The ordinary citizen will be spared the ordeal of filing direct and indirect tax returns, an exercise that today taxes even the most nimble-minded chartered accountant. Governments at all three levels can save money on the huge army of tax inspectors, assessors and enforcers in departments ranging from income tax and central excise to state excise, land revenue, stamp duty, registration fees, commercial taxes, road tax, entry tax and property tax. User charges paid online will not only accrue immediately to the concerned department/agency but revenue receipts to the concerned governments and banks will also be instantaneous. The BTT would also cover agriculturists, who are out of the income tax net for political reasons, despite the recommendations of the K. N. Raj Committee over four decades ago. Most importantly, black money generation through corruption and tax evasion, and its conversion from cash to other asset forms like real estate and jewelry, can be checked.

Reaching out to the huge unbanked portion of the Indian economy requires, as a prerequisite, a digital revolution: the cashless economy can be built only on the foundations of a digital economy. Efforts to promote cashless payments and cash transfers in MGNREGA and the PDS have foundered on the absence of virtual connectivity in large swathes of the country. With banking services not covering even the last ten miles, let alone the last mile, banking correspondents, armed with point-of-sale machines, and mobile wallets are probably the major means by which money can be accessed. This, however, requires microwave towers, with reliable electric supply. Where the terrain does not suit microwave tower connectivity and where electric supply is yet to reach (which are the areas where the most disadvantaged sections of Indian society live), there is need to rely on satellite connectivity coupled with towers powered by solar energy. A second concern is that of cyber security. With increasing criminal infiltration of cyberspace, development of secure, encrypted systems is the need of the hour to avoid economy-wide disruption of financial systems.

Demonetization was initially promoted as the solution to check tax evasion and corruption and deal with counterfeiters and terrorists. With growing public irritation and the downturn in business, the government has started trumpeting the virtues of a cashless economy. This requires a paradigm shift in technology and in individual mindsets. But above all, it requires certain crucial reforms in other sectors of our democracy and polity. I will deal with these in a future blog.