Blockchain: The India Strategy
The work on developing as crypto currency started in early 1980s. The idea was to create a medium of exchange that is independent of any central authority, is based on trust and is accepted by distributed consensus. The process was formally commercialized in 2009 with release of Bitcoin, the first decentralized crypto currency. May be uncertainty over future of fiat currencies post global financial crisis (which led to printing of unprecedented amount of new money) prompted adoption of an independent currency as medium of exchange. Since then, the crypto currencies based on block chain technology have been gaining popularity. Presently, besides Bitcoin, over 6000 variants of crypto currencies are in vogue. The present value of all bitcoin in circulation is over US$250bn and the average daily trading value of bitcoins id over US$23bn. It is clear that Bitcoin is emerging as a serious challenger to Gold as an alternative currency or medium for exchange of value.
In India, RBI issued a circular in 2018 directing all entities regulated by it (Banks and NBFCs) not to deal virtual currencies or provide services for facilitating any person or entity in dealing with or settling those; thus virtually banning use of crypto currencies in India. The Supreme Court quashed the said RBI circular in March 2020, on the appeal of the Internet and Mobile Association of India, representing various crypto currency exchanges. The SC accepted the argument of the appellant that in the absence of any specific law banning crypto currencies, dealing in these is a “legitimate” activity, hence RBI’s circular banning these is untenable.
In August various media reports suggested that a “note” had been forwarded to the concerned ministries for inter-ministerial consultation to promulgate a legislation banning the use of crypto currencies in India. Reportedly, the inter-ministerial committee headed by the former Finance and Department of Economic Affairs (DEA) secretary, Shri Subhash Chandra Garg (who has been in news recently for criticizing the government for backtracking on reforms) had drafted the Bill of the law to ban crypto currencies. In the meantime, as per various media reports, since March 2020 SC order quashing the 2018 RBI circular, the local crypto exchanges have reported as much as 10x trading volume growth and a significant increase in the number of signups.
The question therefore arises are we blind to the opportunity and numb enough to not sense the winds of change blowing across our faces! The answer is a categorical “No”.
In January 2020 itself, NITI Aayog (the think tank of the government of India on policy matters), had released part 1 of the discussion paper on “Blockchain: The India Strategy”. The well-researched and well-presented paper unambiguously stated that the government recognizes the opportunity, importance and need for blockchain based crypto currencies. For example, note the following excerpts from the discussion paper:
“‘Blockchain’ has emerged to become a potentially transformative force in multiple aspects of government and private sector operations. Its potential has been recognized globally, with a variety of international organizations and technology companies highlighting the benefits of its application in reducing costs of operation and compliance, as well as in improving efficiencies.”
“Blockchain is a frontier technology that continues to evolve. In order to ensure that India remains ahead of the learning curve, it is important to understand the opportunities it presents, steps to leverage its full potential and such necessary steps that are required to help develop the requisite ecosystem.”
“Blockchain technology has the potential to revolutionize interactions between governments, businesses and citizens in a manner that was unfathomable just a decade ago.”
“Blockchain is seen as a technology with the potential to transform almost all industries and economies. It is estimated that blockchain could generate USD3 trillion per year in business value by 2030.”
Obviously, the government recognizes the potential, opportunity, need and importance of crypto currencies. Apparently, however, it wants to tread with extreme caution. For example, the following excerpts from the discussion paper highlight the cautious stance of the government.
“Blockchain has been positioned as a revolutionary new technology, the much needed ‘silver bullet’ that can address all business and governance processes. While the promise and potential of blockchain is undoubtedly transformative, what hasn’t helped this technology, that is still in nascence of its evolution, has been the massive hype and the irrational exuberance promulgated by a bevy of ‘Blockchain Evangelists’.”
“Despite the fact that the technology is still in a nascent stage of its development and adoption as it continues to evolve, it is important for stakeholders such as policy makers, regulators, industry and citizens to understand the functional definition of the entire suite of blockchain or distributed ledger technologies along with legal and regulatory issues and other implementation prerequisites. Equally important is the fact that this technology may not be universally more efficient and thus specific use cases need to be identified where it adds value and those where it does not.”
“Any transformative technology, in its initial stages of development, as it moves out of research / development phase to first few applications to large scale deployment, faces several challenges. Part of the problem is that such technologies are initially intended to solve a specific set of problems. Bitcoin, which has led to the popularity of decentralized trust systems and has powered the blockchain revolution, was intended to develop a peer-to-peer electronic cash system which could solve for double spending problem without being dependent on trusted intermediaries viz. banks. As Bitcoin started gaining prominence, the potential of underlying blockchain technology started getting traction. However, some of the early design features that made Bitcoin popular, primarily limited supply and pseudonymity, have become potential challenges in wide scale implementation of blockchain.”
Given the nascent stage of evolution of block chain technology and crypto currencies based on it, the cautious approach is understandable. However, the caution must be pragmatic and should not transgress to typical dogmatic bureaucratic paradigm. We may avoid rushing to capture a still uncertain opportunity; but we should not arrive too late either.