How Game-Changing is the Digital Rupee going to be?

Digital Rupee is India's version of its central bank digital currency or CBDC in short.

While most countries around the globe are trying to get a one-up in digitizing their economy and bringing in a digital version of their currency in the monetary circulation, India seems to be a country leading this venture, with the recent launch of its digital rupee as a pilot project in select cities. However this change had note been a long way in the making.

In fact, the Reserve Bank of India had come out with a concept note titled “Concept Note on Central Bank Digital Currency” in October 2022, and soon after that, the RBI amended Section 2(aiv) of the RBI Act, 1934 to include digital currency or bank notes in digital form within the definition of “bank notes”.

The Digital Rupee will go a long way, in boosting the fintech sector of Indian businesses as well as help ensure the Indian payment ecosystem go a long way. In this article, I will analyse the technical and design considerations of the digital rupee, explore its legal and economic impact of the digital rupee, as well as the security implications involved. I have also analysed its impact on businesses and startups. It is in the last section, so if you wish to go right into it, feel free to skip to the last section directly!

What is a CBDC or a Digital Rupee?

A CBDC is a digital form of fiat currency issued and regulated by a country’s central bank. It serves as a digital alternative to physical cash and complements existing forms of money.

Types of CBDC

CBDCs can be classified into two categories:

  1. Retail CBDCs (also known as CBDC-R), aimed at general public use, and
  2. Wholesale CBDCs (CBDC-W), limited to financial institutions for interbank settlements.

Benefits of Issuing CBDCs

a. Efficiency: CBDCs can potentially increase the efficiency of payment systems by reducing transaction costs and time.
b. Financial inclusion: CBDCs can help promote financial inclusion by making digital payments accessible to a larger population, including individuals without internet access. While, most governments around the globe are increasing internet access at a rapid pace and technological innovation reducing the price of accessing internet, this technology doesn’t seem like an extremely important use-case. Still, if Indian businesses wish to conduct business with the global south in Indian currency, wherein the internet penetration is still quite low, then this may be an unique strong point for trading in rupee.
c. Security: CBDCs can reduce counterfeiting risks and improve the traceability of transactions.
d. Monetary policy: CBDCs can provide central banks with additional tools to manage monetary policy as well as allow the bank to conduct real time data analytics on the flow and usage of money.

Challenges of CBDCs

a. Implementation: The technical infrastructure needed for CBDCs is complex and can pose significant challenges.
b. Privacy concerns: Balancing privacy and security in CBDC transactions is a critical issue.
c. Financial stability: CBDCs could impact bank funding and lending, potentially affecting financial stability.
d. Cross-border usage: The use of CBDCs across borders raises questions about exchange rates, monetary policy, and financial stability.

International experience in Issuing Digital Versions of their Currencies

Several countries are exploring or have piloted CBDC initiatives, including the European Central Bank (Digital Euro), the People’s Bank of China (Digital Yuan), and the Central Bank of Nigeria (eNaira).

India’s approach to the Digital Rupee

The RBI is still studying the potential advantages and drawbacks of issuing a CBDC in India. The few amount that it has disbursed via digital rupee is via pilot projects and at select locations. The RBI is trying to vet the feasibility of the digital rupee and the public acceptance to the project.

Further, considering that the RBI is taking a measured approach and trying to strike a balance between innovation, financial stability, and regulatory compliance while addressing technological and operational challenges, the future of digital rupee is still uncertain.

Eitherways, with the accelerated research and analysis conducted by the RBI in this niche, we will soon know how the Indian approach to CBDC via its digital rupee gets tuned.

How the Digital Rupee is going to be Designed according to the RBI Concept Note

While the digital rupee has been launched as a test project, most of its features are retained from the central bank digital currency concept note that had been released by the RBI, some months back. The document provides several important design features and factors of the digital rupee, which I have analysed here.

CBDC Structure

CBDCs can be designed as either account-based or token-based. In an account-based CBDC, digital currencies are held in accounts maintained by the central bank, while in a token-based CBDC, digital currencies are held in digital wallets. Account-based CBDCs involve a higher degree of centralization and are generally considered more secure. Token-based CBDCs, on the other hand, provide a more decentralized structure that allows for greater accessibility and flexibility.

Access to the Currency

Access to CBDCs can be restricted or universal. Restricted access CBDCs are intended for use only by financial institutions, while universal access CBDCs are designed for use by the general public.

Restricted access CBDCs may help central banks maintain better control over the monetary system, but they limit the potential benefits of CBDCs in terms of financial inclusion and efficiency. Universal access CBDCs offer broader benefits but may pose greater risks to financial stability and require more complex infrastructure for implementation.

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Central banks can choose between distributed ledger technology (DLT) and centralized technology for CBDC implementation. DLT, such as blockchain, offers advantages such as transparency, security, and resilience. However, it may also face challenges in terms of scalability, energy consumption, and transaction speed. Centralized technology, on the other hand, may offer better scalability and efficiency but may be more susceptible to single points of failure and cyber risks.

Related Read: Smart Contract vs Traditional Contracts: What’s the difference

Privacy when using the Digital Rupee

The level of anonymity provided by CBDCs can range from full anonymity to a more controlled, privacy-preserving design. Full anonymity may be desirable for protecting individual privacy, but it could also facilitate illegal activities and hinder regulatory oversight.

A privacy-preserving design can balance the need for privacy with the need for regulatory compliance and monitoring, but it may require advanced cryptographic techniques and robust identity management systems. While a technological footprint in unavoidable when using the digital rupee, it also allows the RBI with greater data analytics oversight and better control over its monetary policies.

As of now, there is no feature in the digital rupee that provides the same privacy as its paper equivalent.

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Will the Digital Rupee bear Interest Rates?

CBDCs can be designed as either interest-bearing or non-interest-bearing instruments. Interest-bearing CBDCs can help central banks implement negative interest rate policies and provide an additional tool for monetary policy transmission. However, they may also lead to disintermediation and a decline in bank deposits, posing potential risks to financial stability. Non-interest-bearing CBDCs may not have the same impact on financial stability, but they may limit the monetary policy tools available to central banks.

Interoperability and Integration

CBDCs must be designed to be interoperable with existing payment systems and financial infrastructure. Interoperability can facilitate seamless integration of CBDCs into the financial ecosystem, promote competition, and improve the efficiency of payment systems. Integration with existing infrastructure may require the development of new interfaces, protocols, and standards, as well as collaboration with existing payment service providers and financial institutions.

Types of CBDC

CBDCs can be designed as either retail or wholesale. Retail CBDCs are aimed at the general public and private businesses for everyday transactions, whereas wholesale CBDCs are limited to financial institutions for interbank settlements and large value transactions.

Retail CBDC (CBDC-R)

Retail CBDCs, or CBDC-Rs, are designed for use by the general public. They are intended to function as a digital form of cash, allowing individuals and businesses to make transactions and store value digitally. The primary objective of a retail CBDC is to promote financial inclusion and provide a secure, efficient, and low-cost digital payment option for the public.

  1. Accessibility: CBDC-Rs aim to be accessible to all citizens, including those who are unbanked or underbanked. This requires developing user-friendly interfaces and compatible devices to ensure ease of use and widespread adoption.
  2. Privacy: Retail CBDCs must strike a balance between ensuring individual privacy and complying with regulatory requirements, such as anti-money laundering (AML) and combating the financing of terrorism (CFT) regulations. This may involve implementing privacy-preserving technologies and robust identity management systems.
  3. Offline Functionality: CBDC-Rs should ideally have offline functionality to cater to populations without reliable internet access and to ensure resilience against network failures.
  4. Security and Cyber Resilience: Retail CBDCs must be designed with robust security measures and cyber resilience in mind. This includes implementing advanced cryptographic techniques, secure storage solutions, and robust identity management systems.

Wholesale CBDC (CBDC-W)

Wholesale CBDCs, or CBDC-Ws, are designed for use by financial institutions, primarily for interbank transactions and financial market operations. They are not intended for direct use by the general public. The primary objective of a wholesale CBDC is to improve the efficiency, security, and speed of the existing wholesale payment systems.

  1. Restricted Access: Access to CBDC-Ws is limited to financial institutions, such as banks, non-banking financial companies (NBFCs), and other authorized entities. This restricted access allows central banks to maintain better control over the monetary system and to monitor the movement of funds more closely.
  2. Technology: Wholesale CBDCs may leverage advanced technologies, such as distributed ledger technology (DLT), to facilitate secure and efficient interbank transactions. This can help improve settlement times, reduce counterparty risks, and enhance transparency in the financial system.
  3. Improved Monetary Policy Transmission: CBDC-Ws can facilitate the transmission of monetary policy by providing central banks with better control over interest rates and money supply. This can help central banks achieve their objectives of price stability and economic growth.
  4. Financial Stability: Wholesale CBDCs can help mitigate risks associated with bank runs and improve the overall stability of the financial system. However, they may also lead to disintermediation and a decline in bank deposits, posing potential risks to financial stability.

In conclusion, the primary difference between CBDC-R and CBDC-W lies in their target users and objectives. Retail CBDCs are designed for use by the general public to promote financial inclusion and provide a secure, efficient digital payment option. Wholesale CBDCs are intended for use by financial institutions to improve the efficiency, security, and speed of interbank transactions and financial market operations.

Offline Functionality of the Digital Rupee

CBDCs should ideally have offline functionality to ensure resilience against network failures and to cater to populations without reliable internet access. Offline functionality can be achieved through the use of specialized hardware or cryptographic techniques, but it may come at the cost of increased complexity and reduced transaction speeds.

The Digital Rupee brought out by the RBI in its pilot project has offline functionality.

Economic Implications of the Digital Rupee

The economic implications of CBDCs can be analyzed under the following aspects:

  1. Monetary Policy: CBDCs may enhance the transmission of monetary policy and provide better control over interest rates and money supply.
  2. Financial Stability: While CBDCs may help mitigate risks associated with bank runs, they may also lead to disintermediation and a decline in bank deposits, posing potential risks to financial stability.
  3. Payment System: CBDCs can enhance the efficiency of the payment system by reducing transaction costs and promoting competition.
  4. Fiscal Policy: CBDCs may help combat tax evasion and improve tax compliance by providing a more transparent and traceable means of conducting transactions.
  5. International Transactions: CBDCs can facilitate cross-border transactions and reduce reliance on correspondent banking relationships, resulting in increased efficiency and reduced costs.
  6. Seigniorage: Seigniorage revenue may be impacted by the introduction of CBDCs, depending on the design and interest-bearing nature of the digital currency.

The Technology behind the Digital Rupee (according to the Concept Note)

The RBI has suggested three models for issuance of the CBDC.

Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT)

DLT, such as blockchain, is a potential technological basis for CBDCs. It allows for a decentralized and transparent record of transactions, potentially increasing efficiency and reducing the risk of a single point of failure. However, scalability, interoperability, and energy consumption are concerns that need to be addressed.

Conventional centralized systems

CBDCs can also be implemented using conventional centralized systems, where the central bank maintains control over the issuance and management of the digital currency. This approach offers advantages in terms of scalability and performance, but it may not provide the same level of transparency and security as DLT-based solutions.

Hybrid models

A combination of DLT and centralized systems might be considered for CBDC implementation. This could enable central banks to leverage the benefits of both technologies while addressing their respective limitations.

While the blockchain industry seems to prefer the distributed ledger technology to be made as the base behind the digital rupee, it seems that the RBI has opted for a centralised two-tiered model.

Security Considerations that the Digital Rupee and other CBDCs bring in

Digital Rupee will be operating on digital devices. As such strong security and cryptography is a must.
  • Privacy: Ensuring the privacy of CBDC transactions is crucial, as it could affect user trust and adoption. Central banks need to strike a balance between maintaining user privacy and meeting the requirements for anti-money laundering (AML) and countering the financing of terrorism (CFT) regulations.
  • Counterfeiting and double-spending: CBDCs must be designed to minimize the risks of counterfeiting and double-spending. Implementing robust security measures and leveraging cryptographic techniques can help ensure the integrity of the digital currency.
  • Cybersecurity: A CBDC infrastructure must be resilient against cyber threats, as it would be an attractive target for hackers. Implementing robust cybersecurity measures and regularly updating them to respond to emerging threats is crucial.
  • Operational resilience: CBDC systems should be designed with operational resilience in mind, ensuring that they can withstand and recover from potential disruptions, such as technical failures or natural disasters.
  • Legal and regulatory framework: CBDCs must be supported by a clear legal and regulatory framework that addresses issues such as liability, dispute resolution, and data protection.

Overall, the design, technology, and security considerations for a CBDC, such as a digital rupee, require a thorough evaluation of various options and potential implications.

How Central Bank Digital Currencies May Impact Startups

It’s no secret. The Digital Rupee and other CBDCs are going to impact businesses quite a lot, especially those businesses that are in the fintech sector. From immediate payment processing to being better able to tap into the international market, the potential is endless. Here are some of the factors that we think startups need to capitalize on considering the rollout of the digital currency in India.

The Digital Rupee will bring out Opportunities for Innovation

As CBDCs are introduced into the financial system, they will open up new opportunities for innovation in the fintech sector. Startups can develop new products and services that leverage the unique features of CBDCs, such as faster and more efficient payment systems, digital wallets, and other value-added services. Additionally, CBDCs can create opportunities for startups to collaborate with central banks and financial institutions to develop and deploy new financial infrastructure.

Improved Access to Financial Services

CBDCs are expected to promote financial inclusion by providing easy access to digital financial services, particularly for the unbanked and underbanked populations. This increased access can create new markets for startups, particularly those focused on serving customers in underserved areas or offering innovative financial solutions tailored to the needs of specific demographics.

Lower Transaction Costs via the Digital Rupee

One of the potential benefits of CBDCs is the reduction of transaction costs and time associated with cross-border payments and remittances. Startups operating in the international market could benefit from these cost savings, making it easier for them to expand their businesses and reach new customers across borders.

Access to Funding

With the introduction of CBDCs, there could be a change in the way startups access funding. The increased transparency and traceability provided by CBDCs might make it easier for investors to assess the credibility of startups, potentially reducing the barriers to investment. Moreover, CBDCs could enable new fundraising mechanisms, such as digital token offerings or crowdfunding platforms, which could democratize access to capital for startups.

Regulatory Considerations

The introduction of CBDCs will require new regulatory frameworks to be developed and implemented, particularly around privacy, data protection, and anti-money laundering (AML) and combating the financing of terrorism (CFT) regulations. Startups operating in the fintech space will need to navigate these regulatory changes and ensure their products and services are compliant with the new rules.

Potential Challenges

While CBDCs present numerous opportunities for startups, they may also pose some challenges. For example, the increased competition in the payment services market could make it more difficult for startups to differentiate themselves and attract customers. Furthermore, the potential for disintermediation and the decline in bank deposits due to CBDCs may affect the availability of credit for startups that rely on traditional bank financing.

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