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Impact of India's Proposed Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC)

Numerous signals have been emanating from the government and the RBI in the past several months to indicate the imminent launch of India’s Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC). This includes the announcement last month that the Cryptocurrency and Official Digital Currency Bill, 2021 will be tabled for discussion in the ongoing session of the Indian parliament.

What is a CBDC?

In simple terms, it is the digital version of legal tender issued by a sovereign central bank. In terms of value, it is the same as the country’s fiat currency and is exchangeable with physical currency on demand. Thus, India’s CBDC will be denominated in Rupees. Like physical currency notes/coins, CBDC can be used by individuals and businesses as a store of value and to make payments for purchasing goods/services.

 

Why does India need a CBDC?

There are many reasons why countries will need their own CBDC systems. In India, interbank transactions and settlements already take place through the reserves individual banks maintain with the RBI, so there may not be much impact in this arena. However, in the retail segment, a bulk of the transactions still rely on physical cash and increasingly, on digital payment solutions. It is important to recognize that payment solutions such as those from Google, Amazon, Apple, or Paytm and Phonepe are all privately-owned and controlled; as such, their growing popularity does pose a risk to the country’s financial system.

For example, it is estimated that 94% of mobile payment transactions in China are processed on transactions owned by Alibaba or Tencent. As the companies behind these apps start to build “ecosystems”, more and more goods and services can be paid for through these apps. Such integration and breadth of usage can easily create a virtual stranglehold that has the potential to place at risk the entire financial system of a country; there could even be regional or global ripples. The launch of a CBDC is thus not just a digital payment system, but also a mechanism towards mitigation of major risks that are associated with an increasingly digital world.

Currently, all payment solutions in India, whether developed and deployed by fintech players, Big Tech or banks, run on the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) infrastructure built and managed by the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI), which is jointly promoted by the RBI and the Indian Banks’ Association (IBA). That India’s payments backbone has never been in private hands reduces the level of risk to our financial system. Also, it must also be acknowledged that the NPCI has done a fabulous job so far. The month of October 2021 alone saw more than 4.2 billion transactions being processed through NPCI infrastructure. But it is important to keep in mind that the payment apps owned and managed by fintech and Big Tech companies are not under the direct regulatory supervision of the RBI because they are not licensed banks. A CBDC-based ecosystem will make the regulation of such apps and platforms easier and more effective- thus enabling a higher degree of consumer protection. 

There are other reasons too why an Indian CBDC will become a necessity sooner rather than later. Countries like China are already at an advanced stage of launching their versions of CBDC. Given global cross-border trade and investment flows and repatriation of funds by Indian diaspora overseas and tourist travel, it is only a matter of time before Chinese or other CBDC enter the Indian financial system. And as more countries launch their own CBDC, it is imperative that we have our own, so that we can negotiate from a position of experience (and strength) when it comes to agreeing on multilateral CBDC protocols.

A well-designed CBDC system reduces the threat of counterfeit currency- something that our adversaries have used over many decades to weaken our economy. Arguably, CBDC can also play an important role in the nation’s fight against corruption and black money- although much will depend on how it evolves and the operational rules and regulatory framework governing it.

 

CBDC: The Road Ahead

At this time, it is unclear when and how the government will choose to launch India’s CBDC. But it is fair to say that an entirely new digital currency ecosystem will be needed. It is likely that the RBI itself will cause to design, develop and run the CBDC infrastructure. There are also speculations that they would be regulated as financial assets by the Securities & Exchange Board of India (SEBI). Big Tech, fintech and banks will need to link their apps to this new infrastructure as well- assuming that over time, individuals will retain the option to pay via physical currency-backed UPI platforms or their CBDC cousins.

Since no regulator can compete with those it is tasked with regulating, the RBI may have to let financial intermediaries continue to take responsibility for the distribution of digital currency via e-wallets or other pre-paid digital instruments and similar solutions. This also means that fintech players, BigTech and retail banks will need to evolve their platforms and come up with innovative offerings to ride this new wave of opportunity. The road ahead will have its own challenges at both the policy and operational levels. The success of CBDC will also depend on how quickly internet access expands across the country and how resistant to hacking and breaches the underlying systems are.

Fasten your seatbelts and prepare for an interesting ride at the end of which, digital currency could be the crowned king. 

 

Image Credits:  Photo by Alesia Kozik from Pexels

At this time, it is unclear when and how the RBI will choose to launch India’s CBDC. But it is fair to say that an entirely new digital currency ecosystem will be needed. It is likely that the RBI itself will cause to design, develop and run the CBDC infrastructure

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