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Cryptocurrency Regulation in India – A brief history

In March 2020, the Supreme Court of India quashed the RBI order passed in 2018 that banned financial services firms from trading in virtual currency or cryptocurrency. Keeping this policy window in mind, the Centre for Internet & Society will be releasing a series of blog posts and policy briefs on cryptocurrency regulation in India

 

The story of cryptocurrencies started in 2008 when a paper titled “Bitcoin: A Peer to Peer Electronic Cash System” was published by a single or group of pseudonymous developer(s) by the name of Satoshi Nakamoto. The actual network took some time to start with the first transactions taking place only in January 2009. The first actual sale of an item using Bitcoin took place a year later with a user swapping 10,000 Bitcoin for two pizzas in 2010, which attached a cash value to the cryptocurrency for the first time. By 2011 other cryptocurrencies began to emerge, with Litecoin, Namecoin and Swiftcoin all making their debut. Meanwhile, Bitcoin the cryptocurrency that started it all started getting criticised after claims emerged that it was being used on the so-called “dark web”, particularly on sites such as Silk Road as a means of payment for illegal transactions. Over the next five years cryptocurrencies steadily gained traction with increased number of transactions and the price of Bitcoin, the most popular cryptocurrency shot up from around 5 Dollars in the beginning of 2012 to almost 1000 Dollars at the end of 2017.

Riding on the back of this wave of popularity, a number of cryptocurrency exchanges started operating in India between 2012 and 2017 providing much needed depth and volume to the Indian cryptocurrency market. These included popular exchanges such as Zebpay, Coinsecure, Unocoin, Koinex, Pocket Bits and Bitxoxo. With the price of cryptocurrencies shooting up and because of its increased popularity and adoption by users outside of its traditional cult following, regulators worldwide began to take notice of this new technology; in India the RBI issued a Press Release cautioning the public against dealing in virtual currencies including Bitcoin way back in 2013. However, the transaction volumes and adoption of cryptocurrencies in India really picked up in earnest only after the demonetisation of high value currency notes in November of 2016, with the government’s emphasis on digital payments leading to alternatives to traditional online banking such as cryptocurrencies forcing their way into the public consciousness. Indian cryptocurrency exchanges started acquiring users at a much higher pace which drove up volume for cryptocurrency transactions on all Indian exchanges. The growing popularity of cryptocurrencies and its adoption by large numbers of Indian users forced the RBI to issue another Press Release in February 2017 reiterating its concerns regarding cryptocurrencies raised in its earlier Press Release of 2013. 

In October and November, 2017 two Public Interest Petitions were filed in the Supreme Court of India, one by Siddharth Dalmia and another by Dwaipayan Bhowmick, the former asking the Supreme Court to restrict the sale and purchase of cryptocurrencies in India, and the latter asking for cryptocurrencies in India to be regulated. Both the petitions are currently pending in the Supreme Court.

In November, 2017 the Government of India constituted a high level Inter-ministerial Committee under the chairmanship of Shri Subhash Chandra Garg, Secretary, Department of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Finance and comprising of Shri Ajay Prakash Sawhney (Secretary, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology), Shri Ajay Tyagi (Chairman, Securities and Exchange Board of India) and Shri B.P. Kanungo (Deputy Governor, Reserve Bank of India). The mandate of the Committee was to study various issues pertaining to Virtual Currencies and to propose specific actions that may be taken in relation thereto. This Committee submitted its report in July of 2019 recommending a ban on private cryptocurrencies in India.

In December 2017 both the RBI as well as the Ministry of Finance issued Press releases cautioning the general public about the dangers and risks associated with cryptocurrencies, with the Ministry of Finance Press Release saying that cryptocurrencies are like ponzi schemes and also declaring that they are not currencies or coins. It should be mentioned here that till the end of March 2018, the RBI and the Finance Ministry had issued various Press Releases on cryptocurrencies cautioning people against their risks, however none of them ever took any legal action or gave any enforceable directions against cryptocurrencies. All of this changed with the RBI circular dated April 6, 2018 whereby the RBI prevented Commercial and Co-operative Banks, Payments Banks, Small Finance Banks, NBFCs, and Payment System Providers not only from dealing in virtual currencies themselves but also directing them to stop providing services to all entities which deal with virtual currencies.

The effect of the circular was that cryptocurrency exchanges, which relied on normal banking channels for sending and receiving money to and from their users, could not access any banking services within India. This essentially crippled their business operations since converting cash to cryptocurrencies and vice versa was an essential part of their operations. Even pure cryptocurrency exchanges which did not deal in fiat currency, were unable to carry out their regular operations such as paying for office space, staff salaries, server space, vendor payments, etc. without access to banking services. 

As a the operations of cryptocurrency exchanges took a severe hit and the number of transactions on these exchanges reduced substantially. People who had bought cryptocurrencies on these exchanges as an investment were forced to sell their crypto assets and cash out before they lost access to banking facilities. The cryptocurrency exchanges themselves found it hard to sustain operations in the face of the dual hit of reduced transaction volumes and loss of access banking services. Faced with such an existential threat, a number of exchanges who were members of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IMAI), filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court on May 15, 2018 titled Internet and Mobile Association of India v. Reserve Bank of India, the final arguments in which were heard by the Supreme Court of India in January, 2020 and the judgment is awaited. If the Supreme Court agrees with the arguments of the petitioners, then cryptocurrency exchanges would be able to restart operations in India; as a result the cryptocurrency ecosystem in India may be revived and cryptocurrencies may become a viable investment alternative again.

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