Debt crisis and a weak currency – would India follow Venezuela in launching a digital currency?

In Q2 this year, the Reserve Bank of India banned cryptocurrencies. The ban announcement was met with mixed reaction, but largely disappointment from the crypto community. While the RBI and the Indian government are taking a lot of efforts to execute Blockchain based projects across the nation, that ban was disappointing.
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 In view of the associated risks, it has been decided that, with immediate effect, entities regulated by RBI shall not deal with or provide services to any individual or business entities dealing with or settling VCs. Regulated entities which already provide such services shall exit the relationship within a specified time. 
Earlier this week, @efipylarinou and I launched the second episode of our podcast on Blockchain and Financial inclusion on Rhetoriq. Lisa Nestor from Stellar Development Foundation discussed the challenges that Blockchain industry had in the Indian Market.
Stellar was known to be working with ICICI bank and other regional financial services players, with a view to bringing financial services to the rural population. The ban has now slowed them down, however, Lisa was confident that the research work they are doing with some of the Indian institutions should bear fruit in the long run.
Over the last 12 months or so, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has taken a Jekyll and Hyde approach to Blockchain and Cryptos. The stance that the Indian policy makers have taken regarding this space is confusing and conflicting. In the sense, RBI are a big no-no to cryptos where as the Indian government and other public bodies have embraced the technology in a big way.
Many technology giants (IBM, Microsoft), local government bodies and the crypto community within India have come together to create the Internet Blockchain Committee whose remit is to build a Blockchain ecosystem in India by working with the government, industry players and startups.
The RBI themselves are working on a digital currency, which they confirmed a few weeks ago. The digital currency is believed to be backed by the Indian Rupee, and the plan is to save about 7 Billion Indian Rupees annually.
The creation of a Rupee backed digital currency is not really going to make it stronger than the Rupee. However, with the creation and management of paper currency in India costing 7 Billion Rupees, combined with the advent of the new payments infrastructure well supported by the roll out of Aadhaar that brings economic identity, we now have enough motivation and a conducive environment for an RBI backed digital currency.
While all this work is being done, the ban on crypto exchanges still stand. This is being fought out in the supreme court of India, where the RBIs decision to ban cryptos is being challenged. However, I believe, just the binary stance against cryptos would push India a few steps behind jurisdictions who have taken a more collaborative approach to Cryptos.
One of the top crypto exchanges in India Zebpay have recently setup shop in Malta, and will be providing their services across 20 countries that doesn’t include India. With news from the subcontinent coming at a brisk pace, and with the INR hitting an all time low against USD, will RBI turn to digital currency?
In a recent survey conducted for bitcoin news, 80% of respondents preferred bitcoin as a safer haven than the Indian Rupee. The INR has been consistently losing about 10% per year over the last few years against the USD, and of course we know how volatile cryptos has been over the last 12 months or so. So while the results of the survey looks pretty skewed, it gives a view of the mindset of a generation that wants to now move on to digital currencies.
However, I wouldn’t be surprised if, after Venezuela, India becomes one of the first to go down the route of central bank backed digital currency. And that would still be just one step forward. Real progress would be when RBI lifts the ban against cryptos, and allows for innovation to find its feet with a collaborative approach.
Its time for the largest democracy in the world to truly embrace democracy – and move away from such absolutism.

Arunkumar Krishnakumar is a VC investor focusing on Inclusion, a writer and a podcast host.

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