Author: Ahssanuddin Haseeb

Why Cryptocurrencies Have Got A New Life In India?

As winter gives way to spring in India, the country’s crypto community, too, has got a fresh lease of life.

Yesterday (March 4), India’s supreme court overturned an April 2018 central bank order barring banks from providing services to cryptocompanies. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) had, in its diktat, assumed that virtual currencies posed a systemic risk to the banking system. This was purely facetious.

Now with the apex court quashing the ban, the cryptocommunity hopes that the Indian government will not take another stab at them by legislating around the verdict. Instead policymakers should take a cue from central banks across the world.

The Chinese model

In 2019, China announced plans to launch a sovereign cryptocurrency—the crypto renminbi or, to refer to it by its technical term, the DCEP (Digital Currency Electronic Payment). The move was prompted by the need to develop an alternative to the US dollar as a reserve currency. In the light of China’s trade war with the US, a sovereign cryptocurrency would help challenge the US’ economic dominance.

To be sure, cryptocurrencies in China are regulated. Even so, it is the thriving heart of the crypto ecosystem as the government is pushing multiple blockchain projects, funds and local crypto champions.

In parallel, China could find synergies between its proposed crypto renminbi and the multi-billion-dollar One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. The major infrastructure project, which involves building a network of roadways, railways, and ports across the globe, is also an opportunity to internationalise the usage of the renminbi. A crypto renminbi will speed up this process.

The current geopolitical climate is also fertile ground for nations such as Iran and Russia to double down on their cryptocurrency efforts.

Even Bank of England governor Mark Carney has called for a digital Synthetic Hegemonic Currency (SHC), similar to Facebook’s Libra cryptocoin, as an alternative to the dollar.

Cryptocommunity’s wish list

To stay relevant amid the global interest, India needs to get its act together. The 2018 RBI order had pushed the country’s cryptocommunity a step back. Once fastest-growing exchanges like Unocoin, and Zebpay have either shut down or moved their operations overseas.

Despite the regulatory ambiguity, there is a fair bit of home-grown talent that served the global crypto market in the past two years. Two of the largest DeFi (distributed finance) players in the world, Instadapp and Nuo, are from India. Binance, a leading Chinese global exchange, recently acquired the Indian cryptobourse Wazir-X.

To further nurture this talent, the following regulatory steps would be welcomed by the Indian cryptocommunity.

Cryptocurrency advisory council:

 The government should set up an advisory council that will guide future policy on bitcoin and cryptocurrencies. Besides regulators and lawmakers, the council should include representatives from national and international crypto operators. It can work with leading players in the cryptocommunity to jointly police the ecosystem and minimise “bad-actor” use cases. In parallel, the government should champion a global regulatory body for cryptocurrencies, working with other central banks and enforcement agencies.

Sandbox facility:

 Most national regulators now have sandboxes that facilitate testing of ideas for R&D and instructional purposes. A sandbox is a virtual, isolated space where untested software can be run securely. The RBI’s sandbox explicitly excludes cryptocurrencies, which should be reviewed. A sandbox would spur the development of corporate cryptocurrencies like Facebook’s Libra or JP Morgan’s proposed coin for payments and settlements. There is no reason why India’s leading companies cannot launch such “network coins.” In China, payment majors such as Ant Financial (a major stakeholder in Paytm) are collaborating with regional and local governments to design such payment technology and lending infrastructure.

Crypto rupee: 

A sovereign cryptocurrency in India would be an interesting proposition for the central bank. With a crypto rupee, the central bank could directly control the supply of cash. Another advantage would be the ease with which this money can be tracked and traced across bordeers for perpetuity on the blockchain. This will also significantly eliminate the problem of the parallel economy. A crypto rupee will have many benefits to specific sectors, such as payments, remittances and providing credit to small and medium enterprises.

State investments in crypto:

 Central banks around the world are stockpiling gold, especially in a post-Covid-19 scenario, and it will be a surprise if they are not adding to their bitcoin holdings as well, as Ryan Selkis of Messari, a research firm, points out. It impossible to ignore bitcoin as an asset class. It has returned a whopping 2,332,803% over 2010-2019. Compare that to the 189% returns of the S&P 500 and the 19% returns that gold has given over the same timeframe. In a scenario of anaemic growth, and falling income from tax revenues, India’s sovereign wealth fund should consider investing in bitcoins.

Consider this upside scenario. If the RBI were to slowly accumulate even $1 billion worth of cryptocurrencies, it would likely drive up the price of bitcoin ten-fold, to around $100,000 as a major nation like India would now be legitimising bitcoin as an asset class. The $10 billion in bitcoin holdings, with some prudent yield-harvesting, would take care of around 10% of India’s outstanding fiscal deficit for the year 2019. It would also be equal to one-sixth of the overall defence budget outlay for the year and would take care of most of the education budget for 2019.

Given that bitcoin is here to stay, the supreme court judgment is an opportunity to take a progressive stance in a nascent sector that has transformational potential. It is high time our top policy makers wake up and smell the crypto. #innlive

Why Are Many CAG Audits For FY’19 Still Not In Public Domain?

In the last few years, there have been considerable delays in the tabling of audit reports for states – a problem whose blame is to be shared by both the elected state government and the national auditor. 

The global pandemic has impacted democratic life and institutions, with assembly sessions getting shortened or delayed in many states in India.

In the first nine months of the year, we have witnessed 47 audit reports meant to be presented to state legislatures from the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India entering the public domain so far. As the later stages of the nationwide unlock process started, discussions around preparing the state assemblies for monsoon sessions had started gathering steam. Since mid-August, when assemblies were re-convened, we witnessed presentation of 24 audit reports in different state legislatures.

Most audit reports presented in this calendar year (i.e. 2020) in state legislatures are the reports for the fiscal year ended March 31, 2018, with only a few of them pertaining to the fiscal year ended March 31, 2019.

The CAG audit reports for at least nine states pertaining to the financial year 2017-18 have still remained unavailable to the legislators and citizens even after 30 months from the closure of the financial year. These states are Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Tripura and West Bengal.

Generally, the audit process starts in the first quarter following the end of the financial year and the legislature gets to see the audit reports within the next 12-18 months or many times even earlier.

This means that in the calendar year 2020, the state legislatures should ideally be witnessing the tabling of audit reports pertaining to the fiscal year ended March 31, 2019, with the audit reports of financial year 2017-18 being already available in public domain from the previous year.  However, as mentioned above this is not the case. The data in the table below makes it amply clear.

Status of audit reports by C&AG of India presented and yet to be laid in State Legislatures (As on September 22, 2020)

(Source: The table is compiled from the data available on the website of C&AG of India and the state AGs)

Now, this raises the question, who is responsible for the considerable delays in the tabling of audit reports? Are elected governments to be blamed? Or to an extent, or in some cases, the shortcomings lie on part of the national audit institution as well?

In this article, we examine the status of delayed audit reports in state legislatures for the recent financial years and the possible implications of it.

While 126 audit reports had entered public domain earlier, three audit reports pertaining to Jammu and Kashmir entered the public domain only on September 23, 2020 — 42 months after the closure of that fiscal year and 29 months after the reports being shared (April 6, 2018) with the then Governor of the J&K. 

These three reports on J&K for fiscal year 2016-17, along with other three for the fiscal year 2017-18  finally got tabled in Parliament on September 23, 2020, as they didn’t stand a chance of getting presented to the state legislature after a decision made in New Delhi on August 5, 2019. But, this makes one wonder why the union government waited so long to turn these reports into public documents, as these reports could have been presented in the August 2019 session or any sessions thereafter as well.

While the audit reports pertaining to financial year 2018-19 have been presented in some state legislatures during monsoon sessions this year, Tamil Nadu state assembly didn’t witness presentation of three audit reports related to the financial year 2017-18 (see the table below). Even during the calendar year 2019, only one audit report on state finances, for the year 2017-18, got tabled in Tamil Nadu assembly.

The three-day assembly session – which concluded on September 16, 2020 – witnessed the tabling of an audit report on the revenue sector (sent to the government on July 11, 2019) pertaining to the financial year 2017-18. For the same financial year, the status of three other audit reports (shared earlier this year by the audit institution), along with the ‘state finances’ report for the fiscal year ending March 2019, remains “yet to be tabled”.

 Table 2: Audit reports ‘Yet to be tabled’ in Tamil Nadu assembly

(Source: From the ‘Status of Audit Reports’ table on the website of C&AG of India)

The last time Andhra Pradesh state legislature saw tabling of an audit report, the date was September 19, 2018. In the last 24 months, including the last session (February 2019) of the 14th assembly, the state assembly has met six times but has not witnessed the presentation of even one audit report.

The 12th legislative assembly of Tripura saw tabling of an audit report each in its first and third session in March 2018 and November 2018 respectively. In the past 21 months, the assembly has met four times, but it went without tabling of an audit report.

The Jharkhand state assembly witnessed the tabling of four audit reports on September 21, 2020, after a span of nearly 20 months. Since December 2018, five assembly sessions (three sessions of the fourth state assembly and two sessions of fifth state assembly) took place but the reports were not tabled. This also shows that in December 2019, Jharkhand went into the assembly election without witnessing any audit report getting presented in the state legislature in the previous 12 months.

Similar was the case with Odisha which went into state election in April 2019 without witnessing presentation of any audit report pertaining to fiscal year 2017-18. For the fiscal year 2017-18, Odisha assembly has witnessed presentation of only one audit report since then, which was state finances audit getting tabled on November 28, 2019. All the other audit reports pertaining to fiscal year 2017-18 and 2018-19 for Odisha haven’t still entered the public domain.

In the case of Haryana, an audit report pertaining to fiscal year 2017-18 was laid in the last session of the thirteenth state assembly (i.e. on 06th August 2018). However, the state went into the election in October 2019 with three audit reports, pertaining to the same fiscal year (shared by the audit institution in late August), not being in public domain.

The West Bengal state assembly has not witnessed presentation of an audit report since July 11, 2019. However, one needs to keep in mind that all six audit reports that got presented that day in assembly were for the financial year 2016-17. The West Bengal state government has a track record of presenting CAG audit reports with considerable delays, which can sometimes run into more than 12 months.

While the state is scheduled to have assembly elections in the upcoming year, there is no information in the public domain on whether CAG of India has shared with the state government the audit reports for the financial year 2017-18 and 2018-19.

Similarly, while Bihar state assembly witnessed the presentation of two audit reports on March 16, 2020, these were for the financial year 2017-18. Two more audit reports pertaining to the fiscal year 2017-18 and four audit reports pertaining to the fiscal year 2018-19 are not yet tabled (as on 21st September 2020) in the state assembly where the incumbent government will be seeking a mandate in the next few months and for which a vociferous election campaign is already underway.

Only one report for the fiscal year ending March 2018 has been presented to the Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh state assembly in the last calendar year (i.e. 2019). The state legislatures of Odisha, Kerala and Telangana saw the tabling of only one audit report each in the calendar year 2019. In the same calendar year, no audit reports were laid in the Goa, Puducherry, Punjab and Nagaland state assemblies.

These unexpected delays profoundly impact the potential follow-up processes such as reports being discussed by legislature’s oversight committees such as the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the Committee on Public Undertakings (COPU). In turn, it also delays the submission of Action Taken Reports (ATRs) by the departments on the related matter to these committees. It affects the effectiveness of the audit reports and adds to the culture of non- accountability on part of the government.

Instances such as the delayed presentation of the performance audit on Chennai floods shows the extent to which an incumbent government can go to keep the discomforting audit findings away from the public gaze. The author Krupa Ge, in her book River Remembers, extensively recounts the tactics and methods that the Tamil Nadu government reportedly adopted to ‘bury the audit report’ by delaying its entry in the public domain. As Krupa writes about the tabling the audit report with a delay of a year, on the last day of an assembly session: “This meant that no debate took place around the report. By the time this report came out, it lost its newsworthiness and was buried in the inside pages of newspapers.”

Warning on these issues and tendencies, with a sense of premonition, A.K. Roy, the-then CAG of India (1960- 1966), while addressing a meeting of PAC members in 1966 in West Bengal, (as quoted by M.K. Jain in an article in the IPAI Journal), stated: 

“By gagging audit they gag the Legislature and as Auditor General,…the effort at gagging audit, I think, is being made with progressive zeal. But the effect of gagging audit is finally to gag you because barring audit there is no independent authority which can tell you all the errors of omissions and commissions on the part of the Government in their financial transactions. But because the Government is increasingly becoming the centre of criticism, by one means or other, by arguments, by delays, in whatever is possible, every effort is being made to gag audit to the extent of making it more and more difficult. Against this tendency you must beware of…..”. #innlive