In the life of a disabled bank employee on the day of the demonetisation
Prem Kumar*, 55 years old, disabled bank clerk with polio, Central Office of a nationalised bank in Chennai
- November 9, 2016, 9.30AM: Prem Kumar has Rs. 70 in his wallet enough to take him to his office by auto-rickshaw. He always withdraws only Rs. 400, never Rs. 500 or 1000 because auto drivers don’t give change.
- 10.00AM: Prem Kumar tries to withdraw cash from the ATM in his office. The ATM is out of service.
- 10.30AM: Prem Kumar asks his office messenger to get him cash from the bank branch next door.
- 11.00AM: After accepting the cheque, the messenger is asked to come later to collect the cash. Cashier in the branch serves the customers first, setting aside Kumar, a colleague’s cheque.
- 1.00PM: Prem Kumar goes back to the ATM on the ground floor during lunch break to withdraw cash. The queue is long. Unable to stand for too long, he goes back to his office to come back later.
- 3.30PM: Kumar goes down again from his desk on the fourth floor to the ATM. The ATM door has a notice that reads, NO CASH.
- 5:00PM: Prem Kumar’s regular auto driver comes to pick him up from the office. Kumar boards the auto without cash. Being a regular customer, the auto driver gives him a day’s credit.
- 6:00PM: Cashier issues the cash to the messenger.
- November 10, 2016, 10:00 AM: Prem Kumar arrives at the office in an auto, collects cash from the messenger and pays the auto driver.
Being a disabled clerk in a nationalised bank, Prem Kumar considers himself to be among the most privileged. Most other disabled citizens of India didn’t think on the days following the announcement of demonetisation. Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India announced the demonetisation on November 8, 2016 while the announcement for separate queues for senior citizens and the disabled was made only on November 14, 2016.
“My friend in rural West Bengal, had to go to a bank for three consecutive days along with an escort to withdraw cash. He is visually impaired,” says Anirban Mukherjee, Executive Member of the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD), Kolkata. “This has hit us pretty hard. Even in Kolkata, our friends are having problems. Getting the notes exchanged is also a very difficult thing. We have to fill in forms which cannot be managed without assistance. Standing in a long queue with someone escorting you, it actually becomes pretty precarious,” he adds.
Reserve Bank of India regulations to make banking accessible
In 2007, India ratified the UN Disability Convention. This Convention provides that states that ratify it should enact laws and measures to improve the rights of the disabled and also abolish laws, regulations and practices that discriminate against the disabled. Following this, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) passed its circular in November 2007 regarding people with autism, mental retardation and other conditions while in June 2008, it passed the circular addressing the problems faced by the visually impaired customers. Subsequently, there have been multiple rounds of changes in the standards set by the RBI to improve banking access to persons with disability. This includes opening and operating accounts, ATM access for the visually impaired and physically disabled, accessible websites, ramps in ATMs and banks, among others.
Talking ATMs for the visually impaired have also been launched by several banks across India. According to TalkingATMIndia.org, as of March 31, 2016, there are 9753 talking ATMs in the country. This includes Union Bank of India (1650+ talking ATMs), Citibank (106), Bank of Baroda (167), State Bank of India and associated banks (2882), HSBC (65), Deutsch Bank (32), Corporation Bank (2), Standard Chartered Bank of India (231) and Kashi Gomti Samyut Gramin Bank.
The accessibility gap continues
Even with regulations and policies, the problems seem to continue. Being visually impaired, Anirban Mukherjee notes that it is hard to find banks that are friendly to people with disability. “This is a general statement, not just with respect to the demonetisation. If there are banks which are disabled friendly then it is purely an exception and an accident. Locating an ATM is also very difficult,” he adds.
While TalkingATMIndia.org is one platform that provides access to this information, access to information about these accessible ATMs still seems to be a big concern. This information should be available on the bank’s website.However, a website audit of nationalised banks’ websites conducted by Maxability shows that all the top ten nationalised banks have accessibility violations on their website.
Gets worse with disabled women, and disabled in the rural areas
Disabled women and others with disability in the rural areas face higher ordeals with respect to demonetisation and access to any financial services even otherwise. “Women with disability have even lesser access to services especially financial services. They find it difficult to even come out without a family member’s support. They will not be allowed to even open a bank account because the family wouldn’t think that she is productive enough or see that she would need a bank account for her personal expenses. They have a derogatory attitude towards women with disability. That is the attitudinal problem,” notes Shampa Sengupta from Sruti Disability Rights Centre.
There is also the infrastructural problem. Having worked in the field of disability rights for over twenty five years, Sengupta notes that a very large percentage of disabled people do not have bank account or even a disability certificate. ID proof like Aadhar card is often denied to them. Even getting a disability certificate is difficult for most of them considering that it requires a valid address and ID proof. “ID and address proof is not available with a large number of people with whom we work with in the community. This is not an issue for disabled people from the affluent class. But majority of them come from poor families,” adds Sengupta.
Proof of address becomes a problem for them because they live in pukka houses. Therefore, opening a bank account meeting the KYC (Know Your Customer) norms which requires a valid address and ID proof is not possible. The situation has gotten worse with demonetisation considering that most of them work in the informal sectors and get paid in cash. Most of them have a monthly family income of around Rs. 5000. Those paid with five hundred rupee notes are finding it hard to get them exchanged. Though public spaces like petrol bunks are supposed to accept the old notes, many of them take a commission in the money exchanged if exchanged without filling petrol. This makes the situation of the disabled from with lower income far worse than the rest.
The gap is real!
Reserve bank of India may have passed circulars to make financial services inclusive, may be even mandated a separate queue for the disabled. And the current demonetisation happening in the country might have brought much of the black money to light. That said, its impact on those not included in the system is far higher. The question is will the government pay the price for the cost on the lives of these affected citizens or will people continue to be the ones to bear the weight?
*Name changed for reasons of anonymity
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