India’s apex bank, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), has issued an advisory cautioning users, holders and traders of virtual currencies (VCs) such as bitcoin​ about the risks involved.

The note published by the central bank stated, “The Reserve Bank of India advises that it has not given any license /authorization to any entity / company to operate such schemes or deal with bitcoin or any virtual currency. As such, any user, holder, investor, trader, etc. dealing with virtual currencies will be doing so at their own risk.”  (See also: Bitcoin Predictions for 2017)

Virtual Currency Risks

This is not the first time that RBI has issued such warnings about VCs. Back in December 2013, it had sent out a similar and more elaborate note

The 2013 note mentioned the following risks:

  1. Since there is no central agency regulating virtual currencies, the loss of an e-wallet to hacking or malware attacks could result in a permanent loss of the currency stored in it.
  2. Payments take place peer-to-peer without a framework for recourse or an arbiter incase of a dispute. VCs see high volatility and their value is a matter of speculation.
  3. The legal status of some exchanges is not clear, exposing traders to legal and financial risks.
  4. People can unknowingly be breaking anti-money laundering and promoting terrorism since identities in a peer-to-peer system are hidden.

This latest warning comes at a time when bitcoin in India has garnered significant interest among investors and users, especially since the demonetization of high denomination notes. The rising popularity of bitcoin in India has probably triggered the unfortunate rise of Ponzi​ and MLM schemes. (See also: Beware of these Five Bitcoin Scams)

Sandeep Goenka, the co-founder of Zebpay, feels that RBI's statement is not targeted at exchanges which follow Anti Money Laundering (AML) guidelines, maintain a full record of client details such as PAN card, bank account and only allow trades via bank transfers. He said, “I don’t believe it has anything to do with virtual currency exchanges like ours as we are all directly in touch with them. Regulating bitcoins and virtual currencies shall help India in a bigger way by helping to create financial infrastructure of the future, making micro remittances cheaper, making record-keeping easier and avoiding counterfeiting of currency. As per some of the top law firms in India, bitcoin is legal as per existing laws. It would greatly help if RBI clarifies its requirements so we can ensure that we comply with all legal requirements.”

No Regulatory Framework

The conclusion on the 2013 note read, “RBI is presently examining the issues associated with the usage, holding and trading of VCs under the extant legal and regulatory framework of the country, including Foreign Exchange and Payment Systems laws and regulations.” However, no formal guidelines for operators and users of bitcoin have been issued ever since. Bitcoin exchanges on their own part have tried to ensure that AML guidelines are followed and they are tax compliant. (See also: India: Migration, Remittance & Bitcoin)

When asked about bitcoins, Raghuram Rajan, the RBI governor at the time, had said, “I have no doubt that down the line, we will be moving towards a primarily cashless society...and we will have some kinds of currencies like this (bitcoin) which will be at work.” He further added, “I think these virtual currencies will certainly get much better, much safer and over time will be the form of transaction, that’s for sure.”

Interestingly, RBI has been exploring bitcoin’s underlying technology – the blockchain​. In January 2017, RBI’s Institute for Development and Research in Banking Technology (IDRBT) issued a white paper on applications of the blockchain technology to banking and financial sector in India. India’s private sector banks ICICI and Axis bank have shown great interest in bitcoin’s underlying technology and have even completed successful trials on it.

The Bottom Line

It’s close to four years since RBI first mentioned virtual currencies in its June 2013 report on Financial Sector Regulation and Infrastructure. A lot has changed since then in terms of user base, trading volumes, mainstream media coverage and awareness about VCs. Perhaps it’s time that RBI formally frames a regulatory structure around VCs such as bitcoin to, give entities involved more clarity and allow a revolutionary technology to grow to its full potential. 

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