Demonetisation: Disabling the Disabled
Poonam says most banks don’t have counters to help the visually impaired or for that matter, any customer with any disability.
For more than 50 days now, Poonam Pardesi has not been able to go to a bank to withdraw money. Unlike you and me, it’s not the long lines, the interminable waiting or the fear of harassment by bank officials that has deterred her. Neither did she magically have a stash of the new notes stacked away at home that came to her rescue.
For Poonam it was not a question of convenience neither one of practicality.
Poonam is 100% visually impaired, a disability that didn’t stop her from getting the finest education, from living in and navigating a city like Delhi all by herself or from working fulltime. But what the disability didn’t do, demonetisation managed to pull off in a mere two months time- make her feel debilitated and completely reliant on others.
Since November 8, when the Prime Minister took the entire nation by surprise with his demonetisation announcement, Poonam has had to rely on the kindness of friends and colleagues- individuals who go in lieu of her to withdraw money from her bank account.
She tells me that most banks don’t have counters to help the visually impaired or for that matter, any customer with any disability. That means she needs an escort, something that banks also aren’t allowing. Poonam says, ‘When someone goes to withdraw money on my behalf, because of the rush at banks, they can’t get all the cash I need. I am always reliant on someone else’s schedule and availability. Did the government even think about people like us?’
Many ATMs also don’t have a voice feature- which means Poonam can’t navigate the process of withdrawing cash without help- this despite an RBI circular that mandates that all Automatic Teller Machines must be accessible for all people.
The alienation doesn’t end there. Poonam describes the frustration that comes with using the new notes. The two security features that the 2000 and 500 rupee notes have are easy to miss. Poonam says the raised rectangle and circle on the currency along with the angular lines will eventually fade once the notes become well used. This makes size the only discernible feature for the visually impaired. What Poonam does then is to keep the notes in different compartments in her wallet, depending on their size. ‘But sometimes the 20 rupee note feels just like the 500 rupee note. The new currency is simply not accessible for us,’ she adds.
One would assume that the PM’s ‘Digital India’ push would come handy here. Unfortunately, like they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Applications like Paytm don’t have a voiceover feature, which means Poonam is automatically excluded from this digital platform. Similarly not all websites are disability friendly, which means more dependence on others.
‘The other day, I wanted to buy groceries from the local kirana store. The shopkeeper had Paytm on his phone but didn’t know how to use it. I couldn’t even explain to him what he needed to do because of my disability. With no cash on me, I was ready to leave the shop without purchasing anything but then I decided to call a colleague who helped.’ Poonam says her purchases are now limited to a known grocer near her home.
This isn’t the first time though that the banking system has let Poonam down. In 2013, when she walked into an SBI bank branch to open her first bank account, she was made to wait for an hour following which bank officials told her that she couldn’t open an account. ‘They asked me, how will you ever operate an account?’ she recounts. After asking her for an undertaking and pushing her to give her thumb impression (Poonam refused, reminding them she’s literate and can sign), she managed to open an account.
Not just that, in another instance, bank officials refused to give her a cheque book or even an ATM card by saying, ‘what if something goes wrong?’ Even now, she says when she goes to the bank with an escort, the bank employees talk to the person accompanying her- callously assuming that with blindness, hearing loss and lack of comprehension skills are also a given.
Poonam overcame these challenges- she pushed and she prevailed. But demonetisation has turned the clock backwards, alienating her and pushing her out of the system once again. Poonam says, ‘It’s not sympathy I want from anyone including the government. Sympathy is easy, ensuring we have inclusion is not.’
The Prime Minister has promised all Indians a brighter tomorrow, often reiterating that for long-term gain there will be short-term pain. But is a brighter, better India only the right of the non-disabled? Will the Prime Minister ensure that Poonam and lakhs of others like her don’t become dependent spectators in this revolution?
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