A riveting radio series on BBC by renowned journalist Jamie Bartlett, titled The Missing Cryptoqueen, is on its way to Hollywood. A movie by the name Fake featuring Kate Winslet is being planned on OneCoin, the cryptocurrency racket that resulted from its main promoter, a high-profile and once very visible Bulgarian, Dr Ruja Ignatova, suddenly disappearing from public view. After convincing thousands to invest in the Ponzi scheme, blinding them through her larger than life shows and performances, including one at Wembley Stadium, she simply vanished and is yet to be found.
OneCoin first emerged on the scene in 2016 and positioned itself as a ‘BitCoin killer’. But, it had no blockchain at all and there was no word on how investments were to be eventually converted into a fiat currency. When investors grew restless, Ruja disappeared. Bartlett’s nine-parter is a detailed enquiry and explanation of what happened as the scam unfolded.
The Indian Connection to OneCoin Scam
Interestingly, there is an Indian connection to this. The first arrests made in connection with OneCoin were in 2017 in Navi Mumbai, when 18 people were held as they organised a seminar, peddling this ‘currency’ and using PM Modi’s video clips to exhort people to invest. In the latest twist, Ruja’s brother was picked up in the US and may have agreed to become an approver.
The answer to the question of what India is intending to do with cryptocurrencies has got more complicated since last year, when the Prime Minister’s Twitter account was hacked and a message appeared on it saying India had adopted bitcoin as legal tender and would distribute it to all citizens.
The tweet was quickly deleted and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) said the account had been very briefly “compromised”. We have not heard again of what the inquiry report on such a crucial security breach has concluded. The matter seems to have been buried quickly.
The incident does seem to have left a mark on the progress of India’s policy on cryptocurrencies, which has become more mysterious. The ‘pre-legislative process’ is, of course, not the norm now. But how far India has travelled from either consultation, deliberation or clarity in policy is clearly illustrated in its position on cryptocurrencies. There is no principle or red line that is publicly put out that may allow for an informed assessment about which way Indian regulation may go on cryptos.
Taxed But Not Legal
The Finance Minister surprised analysts with a 30% tax on crypto earnings announced in the annual Budget without any clarity on their legal status. The tax has come into force this month and the government revealed recently that it had already investigated eleven crypto exchanges for the evasion of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) worth Rs 81.54 crore. The Finance Ministry claimed that “GST authorities have collected ₹95.86 crore so far in these cases, including interest and penalty on tax dues”.
After having listed the cryptocurrency legislation during the Budget and Monsoon sessions last year, there has been no word and no soliciting of views. On 11 December (incidentally, a day before his account got ‘compromised’) the Prime Minister had said at the Democracy Summit with US President Joe Biden that “we must also jointly shape global norms for emerging technologies like social media and cryptocurrencies so that they are used to empower democracy, not to undermine it”. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has reportedly been in favour of a complete ban, citing concerns about the ability of cryptocurrency to take in people and eventually fool investors.
40 Exchanges, 10 crore Investors
The Union Government is to yet reveal its hand or intent. JB Mohapatra, the Chairman of the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT), announced after the annual Budget that it would be taxing cryptocurrencies, that this did not mean that they were legitimate instruments. In confusing comments, he said:
“Taxation does not add or attach any legitimacy, any legality to the transaction that has been affected for accounting for surplus or deficit in a crypto trade. We as a department are not mandated to question the legality of any business, any sector of the business, any profession or any transaction.”
But surely, there is enough of a crypto presence in India for it to receive an official acknowledgement. Of about 40 exchanges, 10 are said to be significant, and the biggest one is said to have a turnover of Rs 34,000 crore. About 10 crore of the population is said to have already bet on these, as per figures put out by officials. The Indian government is not doing itself or its citizens any favours by taxing cryptocurrency but not legitimising it.
India’s Troubling Experience With Chit Funds
India has had a troubled past with get-rich-quick schemes. For example, chit-fund schemes, which fall under the shadowy penumbra of legal and illegal, have ended up impoverishing thousands. An estimate puts the number of chit-fund scams so far to be around 350, with over ten crore families hurt by them.
Two years ago, people from 17 states came together in Delhi to register their protest against scamsters, often like in the case of the Pearl Agrotech Corporation Limited (PACL), Saradha and Narada having political patrons
A decision was made by the Supreme Court in February 2016 to force PACL to use its land asset worth Rs 1.86 lakh crores (according to SEBI) to pay compensation to victims, and a committee under the chairmanship of former Chief Justice Justice RM Lodha was constituted to pay the victims. But the matter continues to cause grief and refunds take time, that is if they come through at all.
The same fate cannot be allowed to befall those investing in cryptos in the false comfort that because there is a ‘tax’, there is a governmental nod. As is well established in the OneCoin fraud documented in The Missing Cryptoqueen, the wooing of investors is incessant through new media and old greed. The Union Government is not helping by prolonging the suspense and yet offering a tax announcement, which is being misinterpreted as a half nod to legality. Cryptic clues do not add up to informed policies or decisions, especially on matters like currency and money. Abdication or dithering is not really an option.
(Seema Chishti is a writer and journalist based in Delhi. Over her decades-long career, she’s been associated with organisations like BBC and The Indian Express. She tweets @seemay. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)