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The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) announced that it is starting the first pilot for its retail digital rupee on December 1, marking the first step towards the adoption of a retail digital rupee or retail central bank digital currency (retail CBDC). This explainer helps us understand the concept of a retail CBDC and the RBI’s pilot project.
The central bank issues two kinds of money. The first is wholesale money used by commercial banks for interbank transactions. Wholesale money is popularly known as reserves. The second is retail money which is used by the public for transactions. Retail money as we all know is popularly called cash. Both wholesale and retail money are liabilities of the central bank and thus are the most trusted form of currency.
The graph below explains these ideas in a better way. We see money having three attributes: central bank-issued money, universally accessible money and electronic money. There are reserves issued by central banks and are already electronically available. Thus, the transition of reserves to wholesale CBDC is much easier. The RBI announced a pilot for wholesale CBDC last month for the settlement of secondary market transactions in government securities.
In case of retail money, we have two options. There is cash issued by the central bank and is universally accessible, but it is not electronic. There is money issued by banks and non-banks which comprises deposits, debit/credit cards, mobile wallets, and so on. This form of money is electronic and universally accessible but is not issued by the central bank. Hence, it is less safe than central bank-issued money.
Central banks aim to fill this gap and by issuing a retail CBDC, they want to provide a kind of money that has all three attributes: issued by the central bank, universally accessible and electronic.
The RBI has decided to first conduct a pilot rollout of the retail digital rupee. The central bank has identified eight banks for the project which will happen in two phases. The first will begin with four banks, State Bank of India, ICICI Bank, Yes Bank and IDFC First Bank. They will offer the retail digital rupee in four cities: Mumbai, New Delhi, Bengaluru and Bhubaneswar. The second phase will see four more banks joining the project—Bank of Baroda, Union Bank of India, HDFC Bank and Kotak Mahindra Bank. Together, they will extend the pilot to nine more cities: Ahmedabad, Gangtok, Guwahati, Hyderabad, Indore, Kochi, Lucknow, Patna and Shimla.
The central bank and banks partnering it will form a closed user group comprising participating customers and merchants. The banks will distribute the digital rupee to the user group in the form of tokens in the same denominations that paper currency and coins are currently issued. The central bank has also added that the retail digital rupee offer will have similar features of physical cash like “trust, safety and settlement finality”. The digital rupee will also not earn any interest and can be converted to other forms of money like deposits with banks.
Users will transact the digital rupee tokens through a digital wallet offered by the participating banks and stored on mobile phones or other devices. So, it will be similar to the other wallets held on the phones but the liability of the digital rupee will show on the balance sheet of the central bank.
In the budget speech for FY23, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman proposed the introduction of a CBDC. She said that a CBDC “will give a big boost to the digital economy” and “also lead to a more efficient and cheaper currency management system”. Hence, the RBI will issue a CBDC in 2023-23 “using blockchain and other technologies”.
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