The ruling BJP's move to change the currency bills last year has affected the visually impaired. Unlike the previous rupee bills, the new banknotes are indistinguishable from one another based on their texture and dimensions.
MUMBAI, India — Vishal Kumar Jain slid his fingertips along the edges of a crisp 500 rupee ($8) note, a pale grey 150 by 66mm piece of paper. He then ran his hands around a 20-rupee note (0.31 US cents), a 147mm by 63mm orange bill.
“Do you see the difference?” he asked. “Can you make it out? Imagine you get a single note, how can a blind person identify which it is?”
Jain, 31, who lost his vision as a teenager, sat in his apartment trying to figure out how to recognise the newly issued banknotes. He faced similar difficulty when it came to dealing with the coins. “Is that the old two rupees coin?” he asked when one was handed to him.
“Really?” He half chuckled, seemingly surprised that there was more confusion possible than he had previously anticipated. The government introduced a new 10 rupee coin, whose smooth edges nearly replicate the shape and girth of the existing one and two rupees coins. Earlier, 10 paise (cents), 20 paise and 50 paise coins—which have been discontinued for several years now—had differently shaped edges.
Between the old 50, 100, 500 and 1,000 rupee banknotes, there was a discernible size difference of 10mm or more either by length or width, a distinction that helped most of India's blind population transact with cash.
But in the fall of 2016, the Indian government banned 500 rupee bills and introduced higher denomination banknotes in the market. For India’s blind or low-vision population, the move affected their mobility.
“Everything I do, I do on my own,” said Jain.“But this has caused unnecessary hassle. Ideally I shouldn’t have to think of all these things.”
The government has described the move as "demonetisation," positioning it as a deterrent to corruption and "black money." A few months later, it introduced several bills in smaller dimensions and colourful designs, including the brand new 500 rupee notes.
Though demonetisation was officially celebrated as a success, experts have argued that it has damaged the economy and affected livelihoods. And India’s blind population is among the silent victims. The new banknotes have not only caused confusion among them, but also triggered insecurity and a feeling of lost self-sufficiency.
Blind people say that the unique tactile embossing the government has designed into the notes, can barely be felt after a while.
“The earlier Indian currency was brilliant,” said Sam Taraporevala, the director at the Xavier's Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged in Mumbai. “But after demonetisation, it has been a mess. I have not found a single blind person who says it is working.”
Jain, who heads the Blind Graduates Forum of India, has been in touch with the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), India’s central bank, for the past few months. At a meeting with officials in September the group had suggested a slew of measures, including withdrawing some of the new notes. “The cost of blind individuals losing livelihoods… their safety and independence, is economically much higher and socially immeasurable than the cost of withdrawing inaccessible notes and coins,” said their submission. They had previously also sent a representation to the finance minister and prime ministers' offices.
Last year, before demonetisation was announced by stealth, the National Association for the Blind (NAB), a Mumbai-based institution, had filed a petition in the Bombay High Court seeking special distinguishing features on both currency notes and coins.
“For the last one and a half years the problem has been aggravated,” said Uday Warunjikar, the lawyer arguing the case for NAB in the high court. “And a significant population of the country is potentially affected.”
That amounts to about 8.8 million people, according to the latest data. “We have been getting phone calls from blind people telling us how difficult it has been getting,” said Pallavi Kadam, executive director of NAB. “The RBI claims they have a marking on the new notes but over a period of time the marking will go.”
For Santosh Bathija this is precisely the problem. Over the past few months, his concerns have been multiplying. “I feel insecure now,” he said. “I have to depend on others and ask people. It makes me feel odd, I never did earlier.” When paying taxi or auto drivers, for instance, he simply doesn’t know if he is being cheated or given the correct change. “I don’t know if I’m being told the truth,” he said. “I have to trust the other person.”
The Forum in the meantime has. in addition to approaching the RBI and central government with its concerns, started a brisk social media campaign, including an online petition which has gathered more than 5,000 signatures so far.
That is not to say the RBI has been totally oblivious to concerns of community members. It had previously approached three organisations working in the field to solicit their suggestions for the new designs.
“They have not been indifferent,” said Ranchhod Soni, head of the technology centre at the Ahmedabad-based Blind People’s Association which had also made suggestions to the RBI. “And the new notes do have line markings. But it is true that as they are used they don’t remain sharp. The issue is how do you retain the sharp tactile bands on the notes?”
The Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged says it had offered thoughts on how to standardise the notes, but its remarks were barely taken into account for the new design. The Forum had also pointed to countries which have successfully made accessible currency.
Meanwhile, no date has been set for the next hearing of the NAB’s high court petition. But at the last hearing the court issued a notice to the central government, seeking its response on the plea. The RBI has filed its response on the matter, although its advocate said he could not elucidate further on what they had said in their reply. (The RBI has not yet responded to requests for a comment by phone or email on these issues.)
Aside from notes, the Forum had also sought accessible measures for coins, websites, apps, ATMs and point-of-sale machines used in card transactions. The Indian government has been overall strongly pushing for people to conduct more paperless transactions. Jain said that very few apps and bank websites were usable and missing features included labeled buttons vital for screen reading technology.
India's finance minister Arun Jaitley in his 2014 budget speech had promised more schemes and measures to assist those with disabilities. The Right of Persons with Disabilities Act passed in 2016 stipulates that various facilities, infrastructure and services be provided in an accessible fashion. But implementation has so far been uneven. Even before that, in 2009 the RBI had already issued a circular mandating that at least 33 percent of all ATMs would have to include features such as audio output and Braille markings. “But after five years the adoption is still low,” said Jain.
And in India, the bulk of transactions are still done with cash. Kanchan Pamnani, a Mumbai-based lawyer, whipped out her purse where notes of different dimensions had been stored in different pockets. She felt around their edges and laid them one on top of each other to illustrate the confusion. “For small transactions you need cash,” said Pamnani. “Just because I’m blind it doesn’t mean I won’t do my office work or house work.”
Pamnani has begun separating her notes more carefully now. “It’s not easy,” she said. “I don’t want to lose my money, so I have to make an effort. But I can’t keep asking others, “what is this note?”