India considering phased roll out of central bank digital currency

India’s central bank is considering launching a digital currency, according to a top executive, giving a clear indication of its intentions for the first time after previously stating that it was studying the idea.

T Rabi Sankar, the deputy governor of Reserve Bank of India, said at a conference today that the central bank is considering introducing the nation’s digital currency in a “phased” manner while legal changes are made to the South Asian nation’s foreign-exchange rules and IT laws.

The digital currency, which will be backed by sovereign, will lower the economy’s reliance on cash, enable cheaper and smoother international settlements, and protect people from the volatility of privacy cryptocurrencies, he said.

“Every idea has to wait for its time, and the time for CBDC [central bank digital currency] is near. We have carefully evaluated the risks,” he told an audience at a conference held by think-tank Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.

Sankar said the central bank’s “endeavor is that as we move forward [with the plan],” so that India’s digital currency “can reiterate its leadership position in payment systems of the world.”

The top executive’s remarks follows European Central Bank saying last week that it will begin a 24-month “investigation phase” that, if successful, could lead to the creation of a digital euro by 2025.

Also last week, China’s central bank said its digital yuan trial had reached $5.3 billion in transaction value by the end of June.

“Central banks have increased their attention on digital currencies,” said Sankar. “CBDC will be in the arsenal of most if not all central banks in the world. A calibrated and nuanced approach will be considered at the drawing board as well as with stakeholder consultations,” he said, adding that the central bank has been exploring the benefits and risks of issuing a sovereign CBDC for “quite some time.”

“We have studied specific-purpose CBDCs proposed by different central banks around the world for wholesale and retail segments. The launch of a general-purpose CBDC for population scale is being considered, and RBI is working towards a phased introduction strategy and examining use cases with little or no disruption of India’s banking and monetary systems,” he said. “However, conducting pilots in wholesale and retail segments may be a possibility in near future.”

In his remarks, Sankar also hinted that the central bank hasn’t changed its stand on private cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin.

In 2018, an Indian government panel recommended banning all private cryptocurrencies and proposed up to 10 years of jail time for offenders. The panel also suggested the government to explore a digital version of the fiat currency and ways to implement it.

At the time, RBI said the move was necessary to curb “ring-fencing” of the country’s financial system. It had also argued that bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies cannot be treated as currencies as they are not made of metal or exist in physical form, nor were they stamped by the government.

“They are not commodities or claims on commodities as they have no intrinsic value; some claims that they are akin to gold clearly seem opportunistic,” Sankar said today.

The 2018 notice from the central bank sent a panic to several local startups and companies offering services to trade in cryptocurrency. Nearly all of them have either since closed shop, or pivoted to serve other markets.

This proposal was challenged by several exchanges and traders, who filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court. The nation’s apex court ruled in their favor last year. This ruling was seen as “historic” but it has yet to impact the earlier circular on the policy level. In the meantime, the country has hinted that it plans to introduce a law to ban private cryptocurrencies.

In the agenda published on the lower house website earlier this year, a legislation sought to “prohibit all private cryptocurrencies in India,” but allow “for certain exceptions to promote the underlying technology [blockchain] of cryptocurrency and its uses.”