So how is it that the government's and RBI's claim that over Rs 9 lakh crore of currency is back in circulation doesn't translate into normalcy on the streets? The answer lies in the deliberate ambiguity of the numbers being put out. It is also the reason why the claim of life-as-usual by the end of January does not hold water.
Rather, it won't be until June before the government and the RBI will have enough currency in circulation to lift withdrawal restrictions (if they will be fully withdrawn at all!).
The biggest reason-despite the government and RBI's repeated claims-is that there still aren't enough Rs 500 notes printed and in circulation.
As per the latest data released by the RBI, as of December 23 it had Rs 9.42 lakh crore of currency in circulation. That number, however, is highly deceptive. For, it includes all valid notes in circulation (Rs 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 and Rs 2000)-not just the Rs 15.44 lakh crore worth of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 that were demonetised.
Break that up and you will know why both the government as well as the RBI are shy of disclosing the number of notes in circulation and, rather, continue to disclose a consolidated amount of money in circulation instead.
On November 8, the day the Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes were demonetized, India had Rs 17.97 lakh crore of currency in circulation. Of that Rs 15.44 lakh crore was demonetised. Hence, the valid currency in Rs 100, 50, 20 & 10 were worth Rs 2.53 lakh crore which continued to remain in circulation. Rather, since RBI printed more Rs 100 notes, it probably expanded, but the RBI hasn't disclosed the additional notes printed.
So, the Rs 9.42 lakh crore in circulation as of December 23 already includes Rs 2.53 lakh crore (probably more). Meanwhile, the RBI had printed nearly 2.5 billion (of the targeted 3.5 billion) Rs 2000 notes before it was stopped to devote all printing presses to print Rs 500 notes. Hence, the Rs 2000 notes in circulation amount to Rs 5 lakh crore. That makes it at least Rs 7.53 lakh crore in Rs 2000, 100, 50, 20 and 10 notes.
Which means that as of Dec 23, only Rs 1.89 lakh crore (or less, if more Rs 100 had been put into circulation) worth of Rs 500 notes had been printed and brought back into circulation. That's short of 4 billion notes as against 17.17 billion Rs 500 notes that were demonetized.
Extrapolate that: With printing presses running full steam printing Rs 500 notes, only 4 billion notes having been printed in nearly 45 days, it will be not before 200 days (mid-end May, 2017) from November 8 that we can expect the entire demonetised currency to be back in circulation for public.
With RBI woefully short of Rs 500 notes to issue to public, it's little surprise that it continues to evade the question of the number of Rs 500 notes in circulation. Instead, the only number being disclosed is the total currency in circulation (Rs 9.42 lakh crore as of Dec 23), a number that cleverly masks the real numbers and the shortage. That explains the ATMs running dry all across the country nearly 70 days since November 28.
And though RBI has refused to release any details of printing, it is believed that another factor slowing the print run is the shortage of paper, ink and security threads. The government has ordered nearly 27,000 tonnes of paper. However, that lot is only going to be delivered by March, 2017. So the earliest to expect things getting back to normal or near normal is at least 4-5 months away. That's a far cry from the government's claim of normalcy by the end of January.