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RBI proposal to develop app to help blind people identify rupee notes slammed

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI)'s proposal to develop a mobile app to help visually impaired people identify rupee notes has been roundly slammed by disability rights leaders and members of the community.

The RBI recently filed an affidavit in the Delhi High Court stating that it had approached a developer to develop an app specifically for this purpose.

George Abraham, CEO, Score Foundation says this "smacks of ignorance, insensitivity and apathy" and says the suggestion of an app is a "total non-starter".

The RBI has come up with the ridiculous suggestion of making an app to sort matters out. They don't realize that 5.4 million Indians are blind and most of them do not use mobile phones. Many of those who do will not be able to use the app. Besides while transacting in busy noisy spaces the app will be totally useless. It is a cumbersome way of identifying notes. - George Abraham, Disability rights leader

The RBI affidavit is in response to a petition that sought a change in the new currency notes as they were hard for visually impaired people to identify and use. This is especially the case with the Rs 2,000, Rs 500, Rs 200 and Rs 50 notes.

In June this year, the central bank's Monetary Policy Statement had talked about how the authorities were working on a solution to this problem.

Amar Jain, a successful corporate lawyer in Mumbai, who is visually impaired, says the RBI finds itself in a spot as re-printing the currency notes is not a feasible option. He says the RBI should have followed important inputs regarding accessibility that were given at the early stages.

"The prototype they had come up with earlier was regarded as distinguishable by some people, but that was not reflected in the final stage. There wash also an excellent suggestion made by an expert that there should not be a difference of less than 10-mm between notes, but that was not followed".

Interestingly, the RBI proposal to develop an app is the solution many countries adopted when faced with lawsuits over inaccessible currency. In India, as Jain points out, this is not an approach that would work for many reasons.

"For one, its inconvenient from a practical point of view", says Jain. "Imagine you are on a train and you get off at the station to order a snack. By the time you take the cash out and check the currency on your mobile phone, the train would have left!"

Two, Jain says, is the issue of access.

"Many blind people don't have access to smartphones or phones with decent cameras. And if the app works with data, what will they do without proper connectivity? As we know this is quite patchy, so this is not a welcome solution".

The case comes up for hearing next on 22 October and the RBI proposal is certain to meet with a spirited challenge. The only way forward seems to be for the court to give directions such that accessibility is kept in mind when it comes to printing notes in the future.

One of the key provisions of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 relates to universal design, which the Act defines as,

"The design of products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design and as being applicable to assistive devices including advanced technologies for particular group of persons with disabilities".

High time this provision is followed in letter and spirit.

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