What is Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) or Digital Rupee?

Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) is a digital form of currency notes issued by a central bank. While most central banks across the globe are exploring the issuance of CBDC, the key motivations for its issuance are specific to each country’s unique requirements.

What is Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) or Digital Rupee?
Central Bank Digital Currency (E-Rupee)

This Concept Note explains the objectives, choices, benefits and risks of issuing a CBDC in India, referred to as e₹ (digital Rupee). The e₹ will provide an additional option to the currently available forms of money. It is substantially not different from banknotes, but being digital it is likely to be easier, faster and cheaper. It also has all the transactional benefits of other forms of digital money.

The purpose behind the issue of this Concept Note is to create awareness about CBDCs in general and the planned features of the digital Rupee, in particular. The Note also seeks to explain Reserve Bank’s approach towards introduction of the digital Rupee. Reserve Bank’s approach is governed by two basic considerations – to create a digital Rupee that is as close as possible to a paper currency and to manage the process of introducing digital Rupee in a seamless manner.

The Concept Note also discusses key considerations such as technology and design choices, possible uses of digital rupee, issuance mechanisms etc. It examines the implications of introduction of CBDC on the banking system, monetary policy, financial stability, and analyses privacy issues.

The Reserve Bank will soon commence limited pilot launches of e₹ for specific use cases. It is expected that this note would facilitate a deeper appreciation and understanding of digital Rupee and help members of public prepare for its use.

Management of currency is one of the core central banking functions of the Reserve Bank for which it derives the necessary statutory powers from Section 22 of the RBI Act, 1934. Along with the Government of India, the Reserve Bank is responsible for the design, production and overall management of the nation’s currency, with the goal of ensuring an adequate supply of clean and genuine notes in the economy.

The history of money is fascinating and goes back thousands of years. From the early days of bartering to the first metal coins and eventually the first paper money, it has always had an important impact on the way we function as a society. The innovations in money and finance go hand in hand with the shifts in monetary history. In its evolution till date, currency has taken several different forms. It has traversed its path from barter, to valuable metal coins made up of bronze and copper which later evolved to be made up of silver and gold. Use of coins was a huge milestone in the history of money because they were one of the first currencies that allowed people to pay by count (number of coins) rather than weight. Somewhere along the way, people improvised by using claims on goods and a bill of exchange.

Money either has intrinsic value or represents title to commodities that have intrinsic value or title to other debt instruments. In modern economies, currency is a form of money that is issued exclusively by the sovereign (or a central bank as its representative) and is legal tender. Paper currency is such a representative money, and it is essentially a debt instrument. It is a liability of the issuing central bank (and sovereign) and an asset of the holding public.

Irrespective of the form of money, in any economy, money performs three primary functions – medium of exchange, a unit of account and a store of value. Money as a medium of exchange may be used for any transactions wherein goods or services are purchased or sold. Money as a unit of account can be used to value goods or services and express it in monetary terms. Money can also be stored or conserved for future purposes.

India has made impressive progress towards innovation in digital payments. India has enacted a separate law for Payment and Settlement Systems which has enabled an orderly development of the payment eco-system in the country. The present state-of-the-art payment systems that are affordable, accessible, convenient, efficient, safe, secure and available 24x7x365 days a year are a matter of pride for the nation. This striking shift in payment preference has been due to the creation of robust round the clock electronic payment systems such as Real Time Gross Settlement (RTGS) and National Electronic Funds Transfer (NEFT) that has facilitated seamless real time or near real time fund transfers. In addition, the launch of Immediate Payment Service (IMPS) and Unified Payments Interface (UPI) for instant payment settlement, the introduction of mobile based payment systems such as Bharat Bill Payment System (BBPS), and National Electronic Toll Collection (NETC) to facilitate electronic toll payments have been the defining moments that has transformed the payments ecosystem of the country and attracted international recognition. The convenience of these payment systems ensured rapid acceptance as they provided consumers an alternative to the use of cash and paper for making payments. The facilitation of non-bank FinTech firms in the payment ecosystem as PPI issuers, Bharat Bill Payment Operating Units (BBPOUs) and third-party application providers in the UPI platform have furthered the adoption of digital payments in the country. Throughout this journey, the Reserve Bank has played the role of a catalyst towards achieving its public policy objective of developing and promoting a safe, secure, sound, efficient and interoperable payment system.

With the developments in the economy and the evolution of the payments system, the form and functions of money has changed over time, and it will continue to influence the future course of currency. The concept of money has experienced evolution from Commodity to Metallic Currency to Paper Currency to Digital Currency. The changing features of money are defining new financial landscape of the economy. Further, with the advent of cutting-edge technologies, digitalization of money is the next milestone in the monetary history. Advancement in technology has made it possible for the development of new form of money viz. Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs).

Recent innovations in technology-based payments solutions have led central banks around the globe to explore the potential benefits and risks of issuing a CBDC so as to maintain the continuum with the current trend in innovations. RBI has also been exploring the pros and cons of introduction of CBDCs for some time and is currently engaged in working towards a phased implementation strategy, going step by step through various stages of pilots followed by the final launch, and simultaneously examining use cases for the issuance of its own CBDC (Digital Rupee (e₹)), with minimal or no disruption to the financial system. Currently, we are at the forefront of a watershed movement in the evolution of currency that will decisively change the very nature of money and its functions.

Reserve Bank broadly defines CBDC as the legal tender issued by a central bank in a digital form. It is akin to sovereign paper currency but takes a different form, exchangeable at par with the existing currency and shall be accepted as a medium of payment, legal tender and a safe store of value. CBDCs would appear as liability on a central bank’s balance sheet.

Bank for International Settlement has laid down “foundational principles” and “core features” of a CBDC, to guide exploration and support public policy objectives, as per the need of existing mandate of Central Banks. The foundational principles emphasise that, authorities would first need to be confident that issuance would not compromise monetary or financial stability and that a CBDC could coexist with and complement existing forms of money, promoting innovation and efficiency.

Key Motivations

CBDC, being a sovereign currency, holds unique advantages of central bank money viz. trust, safety, liquidity, settlement finality and integrity. The key motivations for exploring the issuance of CBDC in India among others include reduction in operational costs involved in physical cash management, fostering financial inclusion, bringing resilience, efficiency, and innovation in payments system, adding efficiency to the settlement system, boosting innovation in cross-border payments space and providing public with uses that any private virtual currencies can provide, without the associated risks. The use of offline feature in CBDC would also be beneficial in remote locations and offer availability and resilience benefits when electrical power or mobile network is not available.

Private virtual currencies sit at substantial odds to the historical concept of money. They are not commodities or claims on commodities as they have no intrinsic value. The rapid mushrooming of private cryptocurrencies in the last few years has attempted to challenge the fundamental notion of money as we know it. Claiming the benefits of de-centralisation, cryptocurrencies are being hailed as innovation that would usher in de-centralised finance and disrupt the traditional financial system. However, the inherent design of cryptocurrencies is more geared to bypass the established and regulated intermediation and control arrangements that play a crucial role of ensuring integrity and stability of monetary and financial eco-system.

As the custodian of monetary policy framework and with the mandate to ensure financial stability in the country, the Reserve Bank of India has been consistent in highlighting various risks related to the cryptocurrencies. These digital assets undermine India’s financial and macroeconomic stability because of their negative consequences for the financial sector. Further, a wider proliferation of cryptocurrencies has the potential to diminish monetary authorities’ potential to determine and regulate monetary policy and the monetary system of the country which could pose serious challenge to the stability of the financial system of the country.

In this context, it is the responsibility of central bank to provide its citizens with a risk free central bank digital money which will provide the users the same experience of dealing in currency in digital form, without any risks associated with private cryptocurrencies. Therefore, CBDCs will provide the public with benefits of virtual currencies while ensuring consumer protection by avoiding the damaging social and economic consequences of private virtual currencies.

Type of CBDC to be issued

CBDC can be classified into two broad types viz. general purpose or retail (CBDC-R) and wholesale (CBDC-W). Retail CBDC would be potentially available for use by all viz. private sector, non-financial consumers and businesses while wholesale CBDC is designed for restricted access to select financial institutions. While Wholesale CBDC is intended for the settlement of interbank transfers and related wholesale transactions, Retail CBDC is an electronic version of cash primarily meant for retail transactions.

It is believed that Retail CBDC can provide access to safe money for payment and settlement as it is a direct liability of the Central Bank. Wholesale CBDC has the potential to transform the settlement systems for financial transactions and make them more efficient and secure. Going by the potential offered by each of them, there may be merit in introducing both CBDC-W and CBDC-R.

Model for issuance and management of CBDC

There are two models for issuance and management of CBDCs viz. Direct model (Single Tier model) and Indirect model (Two-Tier model). A Direct model would be the one where the central bank is responsible for managing all aspects of the CBDC system viz. issuance, account-keeping and transaction verification.

In an Indirect model, central bank and other intermediaries (banks and any other service providers), each play their respective role. In this model central bank issues CBDC to consumers indirectly through intermediaries and any claim by consumers is managed by the intermediary as the central bank only handles wholesale payments to intermediaries.

The Indirect model is akin to the current physical currency management system wherein banks manage activities like distribution of notes to public, account-keeping, adherence of requirement related to know-your-customer (KYC) and anti-money laundering and countering the terrorism of financing (AML/CFT) checks, transaction verification etc.

Forms of CBDC

CBDC can be structured as ‘token-based’ or ‘account-based’. A token-based CBDC is a bearer-instrument like banknotes, meaning whosoever holds the tokens at a given point in time would be presumed to own them. In contrast, an account-based system would require maintenance of record of balances and transactions of all holders of the CBDC and indicate the ownership of the monetary balances. Also, in a token-based CBDC, the person receiving a token will verify that his ownership of the token is genuine, whereas in an account-based CBDC, an intermediary verifies the identity of an account holder. Considering the features offered by both the forms of CBDCs, a token-based CBDC is viewed as a preferred mode for CBDC-R as it would be closer to physical cash, while account-based CBDC may be considered for CBDC-W.

Technology choice

CBDCs being digital in nature, technological consideration will always remain at its core. The infrastructure of CBDCs can be on a conventional centrally controlled database or on Distributed Ledger Technology. The two technologies differ in terms of efficiency and degree of protection from single point of failure. The technology considerations underlying the deployment of CBDC needs to be forward looking and must have strong cybersecurity, technical stability, resilience and sound technical governance standards. While crystallising the design choices in the initial stages, the technological considerations may be kept flexible and open-ended in order to incorporate the changing needs based on the evolution of the technological aspects of CBDCs.

Instrument Design

The payment of (positive) interest would likely enhance the attractiveness of CBDCs that also serves as a store of value. But, designing a CBDC that moves away from cash-like attributes to a “deposit-like” CBDC may have a potential for disintermediation in the financial system resulting from loss of deposits by banks, impeding their credit creation capacity in the economy. Also considering that physical cash does not carry any interest, it would be more logical to offer non-interest bearing CBDCs.

Degree of Anonymity

For CBDC to play the role as a medium of exchange, it needs to incorporate all the features that physical currency represents including anonymity, universality, and finality. Ensuring anonymity for a digital currency particularly represents a challenge, as all digital transactions would leave some trail. Clearly, the degree of anonymity would be a key design decision for any CBDC. In this regard, reasonable anonymity for small value transactions akin to anonymity associated with physical cash may be a desirable option for CBDC-R.

While the intent of CBDC and the expected benefits are well understood, it is important that the issuance of CBDC needs to follow a calibrated and nuanced approach with adequate safeguards to address potential difficulties and risks in order to build a system which is inclusive, competitive and responsive to innovation and technological changes. CBDC, across the world, is mostly in conceptual, developmental, or at pilot stages. Therefore, in the absence of a precedence, extensive stakeholder consultation along with iterative technology design may be the requirement, to develop a solution that meets the requirements of all stakeholders.

CBDC is aimed to complement, rather than replace, current forms of money and is envisaged to provide an additional payment avenue to users, not to replace the existing payment systems. Supported by state-of-the-art payment systems of India that are affordable, accessible, convenient, efficient, safe and secure, the Digital Rupee (e₹) system will further bolster India’s digital economy, make the monetary and payment systems more efficient and contribute to furthering financial inclusion.

How to buy RBI digital currency?

The four banks that the RBI has granted licences to provide digital rupees for purchase. They are IDFC First Bank, Yes Bank, ICICI Bank, and State Bank of India. However, in the near future, the RBI will add a few more banks to this programme. Currently RBI is testing the pilot in four cities they are Mumbai, New Delhi, Bengaluru, and Bhubaneswar.

What is RBI digital currency launch date?

RBI launched digital currency called Central Bank Digital Currency or CBDC on 12 January 2022.

What is the price of RBI launched Digital Currency?

1 digital Rupee (e₹) is equal to Rupee 1 cash.

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