For the past one-and-a-half years, Abhishek Thakur has been keenly following the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) announcements; not because he is particularly interested in its monetary policy but because he is visually impaired and wishes to know what India’s central bank proposes to do in response to PILs in courts regarding ‘inaccessibility’ of its new series of currency notes.

Thakur, 32, an assistant professor at the department of social work, Delhi University, faces problems every day in identifying the new currency notes. When the central bank recently announced a proposal to develop a mobile application to help visually impaired persons identify bank notes, he was dejected.

“I thought RBI would announce a better recognisable feature on the notes. But all our hopes have been dashed. Just close your eyes and try to feel any tactile identification marks on these,” says Thakur holding the new Rs 500 and Rs 2,000 notes in his hands.

“Cash transactions with these new notes, whether I pay a rickshaw driver or the grocer, have become a source of stress for me. I have been shortchanged by taxi drivers quite a few times in the past two months alone,” he says.

Abhishek Thakur, a visually impaired assistant professor at the department of social work, Delhi University, says he is at times short-changed when he pays people. ( Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO )

The RBI’s recent proposal, soliciting bids from technology firms for developing the mobile application, said: “The application should be able to identify the denomination of legal tender bank notes of the Mahatma Gandhi Series and Mahatma Gandhi (New) Series by capturing the image of the notes placed in front of the mobile camera or scrolled across it.”

But it has disappointed a large population of the visually impaired people who believe a mobile application will not help most of them as illiteracy, poverty and unemployment rate is high among the blind.

According to the World Health Organisation, India has 15 million visually impaired people.

Despite the government’s push for cashless transactions, cash constitutes the most important means of transaction in the country. As on March 31, 2018, there were about 102 billion pieces of bank notes in circulation with a value of Rs 18 lakh crore.

RBI says its new currency notes of the denomination of Rs100 and above have tactile markers and embossments but visually impaired people say these identification marks, if any, are imperceptible. “I am a Braille proofreader and even I cannot feel these marks on the new notes. Besides, for us the difference in the size of notes is always more important than tactile marks. The almost uniform size of the new notes has made it impossible to identify them,” says Amarnath De, who is blind and works as a Braille proofreader at JPM Senior Secondary School in central Delhi, one of the city’s oldest and biggest schools for the blind.

“I never felt so helpless with the older notes. Each domination had its own distinct size and was easily distinguishable. Now I have no choice but to keep different notes in different pockets, which is not a very practical solution,” says De, adding that he has overpaid on many occasions in the past few months, especially to auto drivers, after failing to identify notes. “I have no choice but to either trust the person I am doing the cash transaction with or ask someone if I am giving or receiving the right amount. Unfortunately, the new notes have made me more dependent on others.”

After the introduction of the new Rs 50 and Rs 200 notes post demonetisation , petitions were filed in both the Bombay and Delhi high courts. Protests were held in many parts of the country by disability rights activists over the ‘inaccessibility’ of the new notes. In March this year, RBI’s counsel told the Bombay High Court that it had constituted a four-member expert committee to develop a mobile application to help the visually impaired identify the denomination of currency notes.

“I do not think it is a good idea to come up with any external tool to recognise currency notes. I believe the note itself should have recognisable intaglio printing identification marks,” says Rohit Dandriyal, one of the three lawyers who filed a PIL in 2017 in the Delhi High Court, seeking directions to the authorities to withdraw and stop printing the Rs 50 notes which, the petition said, do not have any identification marks.

JL Kaul, founder, All India Confederation of Blind, which works for the rehabilitation of the blind, and also a party in the PIL in the Delhi High Court, says his organisations had sought a change in the design of the new notes to make them easily identifiable for the visually impaired. “We had submitted our designs of currency notes, distinguishable by their rounded corners, to the court. The app is not a solution for the large population of blind people living in villages,” says Kaul.

Many countries are grappling with the question of how to make currency notes accessible to people with visual impairment. In countries such as Australia and Malaysia, each denomination has a different length and width.

In Canada, Braille dots represent currency note of a specific denomination. Activists and visually impaired persons say the simple solution is notes with different length and width — a Rs 10 note should be the smallest and a Rs 2,000 note the biggest. “As the notes get old and worn, the tactile marks fade over time,” De says.

Many visually impaired persons point out that the similar size of the new notes rendered all assistive devices developed by disability organisations useless. Take, for example, Saksham Trust’s rupee checker, a piece of plastic about the size of a credit card, which costs Rs 35.

“It has cuts and marks that allowed people to wrap a note around it and decipher its denomination. But these simple, affordable devices, which worked on a size difference in currency notes, are of no use now,” says Prashant Ranjan Verma, who designed the rupee checker. Even Verma recounts how at times he fails to identify new notes and ends up being short-changed.

“On a couple of occasions, instead of Rs 200, I gave Rs500 to a cab driver and he did not correct me. This has happened thrice in four months.”

Verma, a digital accessibility and assistive technology expert and the general secretary of the National Association for the Blind, Delhi, says no such simple device will work with new notes.

“There should be at least 10 mm difference in the length of the currency notes. An app, whose efficiency will depend on how one focuses and takes a photo of a note, and the lighting conditions, is not a practical solution for the blind,” says Verma.

“This app is like further disabling the disabled by making them dependent on expensive technology. Not everyone can afford a smart phone,” says Thakur.

Verma says that instead of an app, RBI should launch a talking bank note identifier, an electronic device widely used in the US, perhaps the only country that prints all denominations of currency in the same size. He says it has a sensor and the moment you insert a note its slit, it speaks its denomination.

One of these devices, called the ‘iBill Talking Bank Note Identifier’, is distributed free of cost by the US Treasury Department to any US citizen who is blind or visually impaired. “In India also, these should be mass produced and provided free of cost to visually impaired people,” says Verma. “But eventually, we expect the government to come up with a clear policy, making a commitment that it will ensure the distinguishable size and colour differences in currency notes in
the future.”

First Published: Jul 14, 2019 03:51 IST