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Demonetisation: A year on, hawala operators limp back to business

As demonetisation completes one year, there is no physical movement of cash, only phone calls or messages from one angadiya (Hindi for a courier) to another.

black money crackdown Updated: Nov 08, 2017 08:55 IST
P Suchetana Ray and Sarika Malhotra
P Suchetana Ray and Sarika Malhotra
New Delhi, Hindustan Times
Demonetisation,Demonetisation in India,One year of note ban
A year after demonetisation, the wily network of black money agents is slowly recovering from the body blow it suffered on November 8, 2016. (PTI)

On paper, the shop owner in Old Delhi’s Chawri Bazar imports construction material from China. In reality, he is a conduit for owners of real businesses trying to dodge taxes. He is an angadiya.

Angadiyas —Hindi for couriers— are the cogs in the parallel banking network of black money or slush funds that cannot flow through the legitimate banking system but travel through these agents. When black money is transacted overseas the conduits are called hawala agents.

It is a network that thrives on trust.

“The money never changes hands,” explains, Ravi, a Delhi-based client of the Chawri Bazar shopkeeper who agreed to be identified by just one name. The shopkeeper spoke to Hindustan Times on condition of anonymity to avoid attention from police.

“Suppose I get an order to sell 1,000 bottles of glue at ?200. I will invoice it at ?100 in my books and that will be transferred to my bank by my client,” said Ravi, who supplies industrial glue to businessmen in Ludhiana.

“But the remaining ?1-lakh will come to me through the chain of angadiyas between Delhi and Ludhiana.”

There is no physical movement of cash, only phone calls or messages from one angadiya to another.

The Chawri Bazar man just has to ensure that he has enough cash to make the final delivery to Ravi. In return, he earns a commission. In this case, the Chawri Bazar man is the terminal point in the chain. In other cases, he could be the first point with his Ludhiana counterpart being the terminal one. At some point, the angadiyas square off their books.

November 8, 2016 is a date the Chawri Bazar shopkeeper won’t forget in a hurry. That evening, he lost Rs 10-lakh in a matter of minutes, before the echo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation had died. The Prime Minister announced the invalidation of 500-and 1,000-rupee banknotes.

The entire amount with the Chawri Bazar man was in Rs 1,000 notes—all of it unaccountable to taxmen. Hundreds of his fellow angadiyas also saw huge amounts of money vanish into thin air that evening.

But a year later, the wily network of black money agents is slowly recovering from that body blow as demand for their services grows from shadowy businesses operating on the margins of the legal economy.

Curiously, the Chawri Bazar storekeeper is not sore about demonetisation, which priced out smaller angadiyas.“It has reduced competition,” said the 39-year-old angadiya, rocking back his lean frame in a couch at a central Delhi coffee shop he picked to meet with the Hindustan Times (HT) journalists.

Demonetisation changed other things, too. Code words now change more frequently, as do mobile numbers.

“WhatsApp is the safest,” said a South Delhi hawala agent known as Bhai-ji. The 47-year-old stocky man fiddled with his three high-end mobile phones as he allowed HT glimpses of his secretive communication codes: Kg for $10,000; two-kg for $20,000.

For the angadiyas that survived demonetisation, increased risk fetches higher commissions: ?80-100 to ?130 for each lakh of rupees transferred on the Ludhiana - Delhi network. It can go higher if the deadline is tighter and the facilitator cleverer.

A Mumbai-based businessman HT spoke to said he did not mind the rise in commission. Heightened surveillance is what bothers him. His ill-gotten income comes mostly from real estate deals, cricket betting and bogus invoicing.

Hawala agents like Bhai-ji now charge 20-50 paise per US dollar as commission. Though the mark-up depends on the amount and destination, it is much higher than the pre-demonetisation rates of 15-25 paise per dollar.

The government has banned cash transactions over ?2 lakh since April; if caught an equal amount must be paid as penalty. Official data shows a 154% increase in tax raids under Modi in 2016-17 leading to a 272% increase in black money recovery.

“There is no evidence to suggest that black money generation has reduced, but increased surveillance and curbs on cash transactions has made the business of cash transfers within and outside the country risky,” said a top tax officer.

Back in Chawri Bazar, the young angadiya agreed the focus on digital economy is hurting him. To meet money transfer demands, at times he borrows from local money lenders.

“Imagine, they charge interest on hourly basis,” he complained.

But he also saw a silver lining. “The increased rates will help once the economy picks up and we have more demand for money transfers.”

First Published: Nov 08, 2017 07:14 IST