Pakistan Peoples’ Party Senator Osman Saifullah Khan has recommended adopting the tactic just recently employed by the Modi government in India to prevent corruption; recall high denomination notes and release new ones so that those stashing ill-gotten wealth have to bring them to the banks and thus open their balances up for scrutiny.

If only it were that simple. Preventing corruption will take much more than simply asking all those with black wealth to bring it in. If we are to work along the PPP Senator’s (and India’s) line of argument and ignore all other methods to prevent corrupt practices, is this the best idea? The principle behind it is simple – anyone bringing in large hitherto undeclared stores of large denominations will be flagged and interrogated if they can offer up no explanation as to how it was earned. Pakistan’s economy is indeed mostly cash-based, but there are multiple reasons as to why this won’t work.

Firstly, mob bosses, drug dealers or government officials (all those in a position of influence) can always get someone else to exchange larger denominations for smaller ones. Secondly, the Indian government has completely ignored the troubles faced by the general public as a result of this – ATMs have been closed for the changeover, banks are queued up and many in the masses have an immediate short term liquidity crisis. Thirdly, this does not even take into account real forms of corruption – drugs will still be sold, bribes will still be exchanged and money will still be stolen. This is only a stop-gap measure, and not even a good one at that, because this one-time deal does nothing to prevent corruption from being rampant the minute this process dies down. 

Sure, it could work in cases like the Balochistan Finance Secretary’s room full of cash, but those are few and far in between. Many of those involved in illicit deals whiten their money through the purchase of assets such as cars and houses, and have dummy businesses that do not require audits to legitimise money earned illegally. All people have to do to avoid scrutiny in Pakistan is to declare luxury items or assets as ‘gifts’ given by richer family members and the like. And in any case, no one will willingly turn themselves in.

It is important to look at this move by the Indian government in the context of Modi’s election promise – bringing back ill-gotten wealth stashed abroad. This he has failed to do, and this initiative to take back bigger denominations is making a show of fighting corruption with nothing but smoke and mirrors. The Pakistan government does not need to embroil itself in this hassle – increasing transparency, clamping down on tax evaders and engaging the entire country in an asset declaration process is the way forward.