India’s central bank is shutting the door on bitcoin and other crypto-currencies

Making India uncomfortable.
Making India uncomfortable.
Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic
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Crypto-currencies may be one of the most intriguing subjects in the world of finance right now but they have failed to impress India’s central bank. 

In a fairly definitive expression of its stance, a director of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has signalled that virtual currencies like bitcoin won’t be allowed in the country. ”Our current position on bitcoins is that we will not be using it for any payments and settlements…though the technology underlying crypto-currencies will not end,” said S Ganesh Kumar, executive director of the RBI, at a conference in Mumbai on Nov. 06.

Kumar’s comments are likely to end much of the speculation over the legitimacy of virtual currencies in India. However, blockchain technology, which underlies these virtual currencies, has significant potential, added Kumar. Banks in India are already relying on blockchain to enable overseas transactions, international remittances, and other processes.

For a few months now, talk about the government curbing the use of crypto-currencies has gained momentum, although an official notification to ban their use is still awaited. The RBI had earlier hinted at the possibility of India having its own crypto-currency, backed by the central bank, adding that it lacked confidence in existing virtual currencies that are privately held.

In August, a finance ministry panel also reportedly recommended that virtual currencies should be banned in the country because of their potential misuse for money laundering and fraud. Among other reasons, the soaring price of bitcoin has made the government uneasy. On Nov. 06, for instance, a single bitcoin was worth Rs4.92 lakh ($7,610.80), more than twice its value three months ago.

The crypto-currency ecosystem in India is very small: Bitcoin is accepted at only a few restaurants, and some virtual currency exchanges allow users to make payments for books or movie tickets. It is mainly being used as an investment option.

Unsurprisingly, participants in India’s virtual currency trade are displeased. “We will do our best to continue with our efforts to educate the government about crypto-currencies,” said Sandeep Goenka, co-founder of Zebpay, a bitcoin exchange. “It can be useful for India by turning the country into a fintech hub, to increase financial inclusion, and there are several other benefits of it.”