Indian banks need to become disabled-friendly

RBI says all new ATMs set up after July 1 need to be

srishti

Srishti Pandey | July 23, 2014


Poonam, who works with an NGO, wanted to open an account but bank officials were reluctant till she told them about special provisions for people like her.
Poonam, who works with an NGO, wanted to open an account but bank officials were reluctant till she told them about special provisions for people like her.

Poonam, a 34-year-old professional working with an NGO, is blind since birth, and needs no help in a variety of day-to-day tasks: living in a hostel with no family support, commuting to work, shopping – except banking. When it comes to withdrawing money from an ATM or paying bills online, she has to turn to friends and colleagues.

Over the years, access to banking services in India has been made simpler for people at large right from the increased number of brick-and-mortar branches to a large ATM network and very recently to the relaxation in know-your-customer (KYC) norms. All these efforts, however, haven’t made much of a difference to Poonam or others with disabilities, who have at various times and places been denied banking facilities – no bank being an exception.

(Also read: The rare ability of providing access)

Taking note of this fact, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) reiterated its directions in this regard and issued a mandate in May. From July 1, all new ATMs to be set up will have to be, “talking ATMs” (ATMs with voice guidance), and the existing ones will have to be converted in a phased manner.

“It is observed that some banks have not yet made at least one-third of the new ATMs installed as talking ATMs with Braille keypads as advised  vide in our circular (issued in 2009). It is, therefore, advised that banks should make all new ATMs installed from July 1, 2014 as talking ATMs with Braille keypads and lay down a road map for converting existing ATMs as talking ATMs with Braille keypads as advised in our (earlier) circular,” reads the apex bank circular. Further, the banking regulator has also directed banks’ boards to review progress constantly.

The idea is to ensure that more and more disabled people, constituting around 2.1 percent of the total population (2001 census), are brought into the banking fold and don’t have to depend on others to help them manage their money.

So far, 2,19,06,769 people with various disabilities have had very poor access to banking – primarily because of lack of awareness – most users do not know their own rights, and most bank staff have no clue about the provisions meant to help them. The latter is cause for greater worry.

People with disabilities are denied even the most basic ones including opening an account because most bank staff consider it a “headache”, says a public sector bank employee who was born with a lower limb deformity. “I have constant fights with my colleagues over opening accounts for people with disabilities. They are made to visit the branch so many times in the name of procedural formalities that they get tired and ultimately give up,” admits the Delhi-based employee who did not wish to be identified.

When Poonam wanted to open a bank account in 2006, a State Bank of India branch in Mumbai was very reluctant till she told them about the special provisions for people like her. It took her a lot of persuading and warning the SBI officials after which they agreed to open an account.

Six months later, when she got a new job and thus needed to open a new salary account, the process was simpler at Syndicate Bank because the branch was within her organisation’s premises but getting a cheque book and debit card was a battle she had to fight.

“The excuse they gave me was that my signature could be forged or my ATM PIN could be misused. It was only after I produced the (previous) RBI circular that they obliged after taking an undertaking from me. The entire exercise right from the beginning has been frustrating and it continues to bother me,” Poonam says angrily.

Earlier this year, when she moved to the capital, she had to face the discomfiture at an HDFC Bank branch again. Recalling her frustrating experiences, Poonam says, “The staff in both the banks treated me as if I did not exist. They ignored me and spoke with only my colleagues who had accompanied me. I then realised that society and our institutions leave no stone unturned to discriminate against us.”

Making bank branches and ATMs accessible to all and treating all customers at par is not an all-new guideline that the RBI has come up with. Right from 2009, the central bank has issued circulars and guidelines mandating banks to ensure that at least one-third of their ATMs are disabled-friendly, with Braille keypads and voice-enabled software and ramps. Banks, however, have made little progress.

Only around 6,000 of the 1.6 lakh ATMs in the country are ‘talking ATMs’ (and that is a conservative estimate). And then there are problems even with these 6,000 kiosks. Some do not have the voice facility, and ones that do are hardly good enough to help the customer navigate and successfully complete the transaction.

For instance, an SBI ATM in Delhi categorised as a talking ATM on its website didn’t give out voice instructions in spite of plugging earphones in the machine. At an HDFC Bank ATM, the voice-enabled software was functioning but it only gave instructions to enter the PIN and the amount and went mute when the options to select the kind of transaction (cash withdrawal, balance inquiry, mini statement, etc) or kind of account (current, credit or savings) appeared on the screen. In such a scenario, visually challenged people are left with no choice but to either withdraw money from the branch or, like Poonam, depend on somebody trustworthy to help her at ATMs.

“Most of the ATMs are only for lip-service. I once tried to use a talking ATM in Mumbai and I got timed out,” says Poonam. “I now rely only on my close friends to help me withdraw money from ATMs. It is ironical that while I do a lot of other things right from commuting using public transport to working and living independently in cities like Delhi and Mumbai, I am dependent on my friends for the simplest banking service,” she says.

Furthermore, ATMs don’t carry any sign of being disabled-friendly or not. What is worse is that even branches don’t give information about the locations of such ATMs, says Sanjeev, a central government employee suffering from neuromuscular disorder, which has weakened his muscles so much so that it is difficult for him to punch ATM keys. “Most of the times we need to present the circulars etc to avail banking facilities. In such a case expecting them to help us locate disabled-friendly ATMs is being unrealistic. And the so-called disabled-friendly ATMs need further thinking through to include audio sensors and proper rails alongside ramps,” he says.

When a disabled person applies for a loan, banks are “extra cautious” and apply more stringent checks than the usual – never mind the huge mound of bad loans worth '2.3 lakh crore, as on September 2013, which banks are sitting on. This is one of the most common grievances which the office of the chief commissioner for people with disabilities under the ministry of social welfare and justice receives.
According to Prasanna K Pincha, the current chief commissioner, who is also visually disabled, said: “I haven’t seen the number of complaints going down over the years.  The problem is that many people can’t imagine disabled people, especially the visually challenged, carrying out banking services on their own. Hence, in many of my judgments I also ask banks to sensitise their employees.”

In most cases, customers are directed to seek loans from the national handicapped finance and development corporation (NHFDC), set up under the department of disability affairs, and its network of state channelising agencies, says Pincha.

NHFDC extends soft loans (that is, on lesser interest rates) to people with disabilities but this does not mean that they cannot seek loans from commercial banks.

In the 2013-14 fiscal, the NHFDC has disbursed loans worth '7,581.94 lakh to 13,307 beneficiaries as compared to '6,958.99 lakh loans extended to 13,296 beneficiaries in the previous fiscal, as per the figures quoted on the organisation’s website. Loans are extended for various purposes including education, buying commercial vehicles, agricultural activities, setting up self-employment ventures, etc.

“Both NHFDC and banks should run as parallel agencies and it should be the customer’s choice to choose between the two instead of being forced to turn only towards NHFDC or other NGOs/trusts due to their disabilities,” Pincha says.

Take the example of 32-year-old Rajesh Sharma, a professor of Hindi in Delhi University’s Hansraj College. Hailing from Barachakiya village in Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh district, Sharma started losing his eyesight after he was affected by brain fever at the age of three. As there was no awareness about the disease and there were no healthcare facilities in and around the village, the problem was diagnosed at a very late stage by when the damage was irreparable. By the time Sharma turned ten, he completely lost his vision.

While opening an account as a second-year student at the Canara Bank branch within Hansraj’s campus and carrying out basic banking services have not been a big problem for Sharma, his first drubbing came in 2011 when he approached the SBI branch in north Delhi to open an account. The manager outright denied his request, Sharma recalls. “That came as a rude shock to me. If the country’s largest lender cannot accommodate people like us then I shudder to think about the treatment meted out at other banks,” he says.

Around the same time, Sharma needed a loan to purchase a flat. But going by his experience at SBI and what he heard from his colleagues, whose requests had been denied by banks, he decided to look at other options.

Sharma decided to avoid the bank route and instead approached a Delhi-based NGO, National Federation of the Blind, which provided him a home loan for '15 lakh in association with Tech Mahindra at eight percent interest.

Bankers, however, have their own story to share. They maintain there is no general apathy towards people with disabilities. “There is no deliberate attempt on the part of banks to exclude them. Isolated cases should not be mistaken for a general attitude of the bankers,” Bank of Baroda chairman SS Mundra clarifies, adding that the latest RBI circular will strengthen banks’ focus.

A general manager working with another public sector bank says that banks like to “double-check” with such customers before giving them facilities like cheque books and debit card only because they want to be extra cautious. “We are custodians of their funds and that is why we are extra careful with them. This shouldn’t be looked at as denial of services,” the general manager said. 

Another employee working with Union Bank of India, the first public sector bank to roll out talking ATMs in the country in 2012, says that while enough rules and guidelines are in place, it is important to follow them not just in letter but also in spirit. “The focus needs to shift on implementation and regular monitoring,” he says.

Asked about the possibility of creating a dedicated cadre of bank officials to cater to the needs of disabled people in branches, Mundra disagrees with the idea calling it “practically impossible.” He also dismisses the allegation of banks denying loans to people with disabilities. “We welcome all kinds of economically viable proposals at our bank. That is the only criterion we examine before giving out loans to any entity, individual or corporate.”

Meanwhile, one group that is extremely hopeful after the new mandate is that of ATM manufacturing companies. Navroze Dastur, MD (Financials-India) of NCR Corp, a global ATM manufacturer, says, “While there was not much demand for this solution (talking ATMs) as not many banks had taken cognizance of the earlier RBI directive (in 2009), we are hoping that more banks will deploy this machine soon. We are in talks with various banks for the deployment of talking ATMs which are access for all (AFA) compliant.”

There can be various reasons for the slow progress in reaching out to this 2.1 percent of the population. Chief commissioner Pincha points out that one reason could be that this group is an invisible minority and hence does not constitute a ‘vote bank’ for politicians to care enough. But banks and the government need to remember that banking services can be made fully inclusive and sustainable only if they are accessible to every section of society, no matter how big or small it is.

(The story appeared in the July 16-31, 2014 issue of the magazine)

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