Over the last few days, multiple news reports have appeared in the media estimating the amount of demonetised money that has been returned to the Reserve Bank of India and, as a result, the possible amount of black money that the exercise weeded out. Unfortunately, none of these are conclusive, and we will not know the actual number until the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) puts it out itself.
Here's what we know: According to RBI data, there was Rs 17.97 lakh crore in circulation on November 4, four days before the demonetisation announcement was made. We do not know how much of this was in the form of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes; the closest estimate of that is from March 2016 when 1570.7 crore Rs 500 notes of a total value of Rs 7.85 lakh crore and 632.6 crore Rs 1,000 notes of a total value of Rs 6.33 lakh crore were in circulation. We also know that there was Rs 9.38 lakh crore in circulation on December 30, the last day that people had to deposit their demonetised notes.
What we do not know is how much demonetised money has been deposited by people with banks and post offices. This is also not possible to derive precisely from RBI data, because we do not know the exact share of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes in circulation on November 8 or the share of new Rs 500 and Rs 2000 notes in the new money injected by the RBI since then.
News reports by the Indian Express and Bloomberg have used information from their sources to say that over Rs 14 lakh crore, or between 93.5% and 97% of the value of old Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, has been returned to banks and post offices. Some of the rest could be held by NRIs or in Nepal and Bhutan. A columnist at Swarajya, meanwhile, has estimated the likely share of new notes in the fresh money injected by the RBI into the banking system to conclude that Rs13.78 lakh crore has been returned into the system and Rs1.66 lakh crore has disappeared as potential black money.
The government is expected to release data setting the matter to rest before the budget. Until then, take everything with a pinch of salt.