India’s cryptocurrency regulations will likely come by end of 2018

It’s complicated.
It’s complicated.
Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic
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The long-awaited regulations for the Indian cryptocurrency ecosystem are now likely to come only by the end of the year.

That’s because a finance ministry panel is still evaluating how to treat blockchain and cryptocurrencies separately. Although the Narendra Modi government and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) had expressed their inclination to adopt blockchain, there have been misgivings on the latter.

The panel, set up in December 2017 under Subhash Chandra Garg, secretary in the department of economic affairs, to suggest regulations on cryptocurrencies, was expected to submit its proposal by July. Now that “looks difficult,” according to a senior government official privy to the panel’s discussions.

“There are lots of issues that need understanding and lots of studying needs to be done,” the official added, requesting anonymity.

The key issue facing the panel is if regulations can be drawn up to push the use of blockchain independently. Blockchain is a digitised and decentralised public ledger for all cryptocurrency transactions. If financial application is removed from it, this tool is essentially a bookkeeping platform that is owned by nobody but can be accessed by anybody on the internet.

“Blockchain is an interesting thing. We definitely want to milk it effectively for financial transactions. So all officials are really trying hard to understand how to separately use blockchain, without cryptocurrency,” the official explained. “And understanding a new software takes time.”

An email sent to the finance ministry remained unanswered.

Crypto versus blockchain

Meanwhile, representatives of India’s cryptocurrency community have met the government to help them understand the subject better.

“In fact, we had one meeting specifically on this topic,” said Ajeet Khurana, former head of the Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Committee, a lobby of bitcoin players in India. “A public blockchain needs to have a token and you can’t have it by excluding cryptocurrencies. Moreover, a public blockchain is analogues to the internet and no one can control it.”

And although the industry is open to further discussion, the exclusion of cryptocurrency seems somewhat problematic.

“If a common man is involved in a blockchain that can be used to mine or validate a particular transaction then it takes resources. The investors are then incentivised by paying in cryptocurrencies, so if these digital coins are removed from the equation then it doesn’t make sense,” explained Shubham Yadav, co-founder of Coindelta, a Pune-based cryptocurrency exchange.

The dilemma

The Modi government has been looking into the cryptocurrency ecosystem ever since April 2017 when it set up a panel comprising officials from the finance ministry, the RBI, and India’s market regulator, the Securities and Exchanges Board of India (SEBI). This group recommended slowly choking the industry, primarily to safeguard investors.

Subsequently, in December 2017, the government appointed the Garg-led committee, which has veered away from banning cryptocurrencies outright and is instead mulling treating them as a commodity. “The issue here is about regulating the trade and we need to know where the money is coming from. Allowing it as (a) commodity may let us better regulate trade and so that is being looked at,” a government official told Quartz last month.

But India’s cryptocurrency ecosystem has already been pushed into a corner. Earlier this year the RBI cracked the whip on the exchanges, asking banks to wind up all business relationship with them and investors. Since then, several exchanges have challenged the RBI in the supreme court. A final date for hearing the matter has been set for Sept. 11.