Despite the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) repeatedly issuing circulars to all scheduled commercial banks across the country to provide banking facilities to customers with disabilities at a par with non-disabled people, the majority of disabled people continue to be inconvenienced by the banks. The situation is especially grim in rural areas and post the demonetisation announcement.
The hurdles for disabled people to access banking services are plenty. Many disabled people, especially in rural India, find it difficult to sign bank documents, and are denied ATM cards, cheque books and Internet banking. The majority of commercial banks have archaic rules in their statute books which debar people with disabilities from opening independent accounts. Persons with disabilities are compelled to produce witnesses every time they visit banks to make online transactions through real-time gross settlement and national electronic funds transfer.
Denial of banking services
The banking industry has classified its customers; it prioritises those it considers suitable for the banks’ business, be it in terms of customer needs, interest in certain product features, or customer profitability. Disabled persons are excluded. In this age of technology, banks have embarked on a slew of innovative strategies to woo the general public. We have been witnessing a lot of tailor-made financial products and services for general customers. However, there is a common perception among bank officials that disabled people do not require banking products and services. This is perhaps why most bank websites are inaccessible. The majority of them offer graphical ‘captcha’ to enable customers to proceed on these sites. These make it impossible for a fully blind person to access available services. Moreover, disabled customers are perceived as dependent on their family members; they are seen as lacking independent agency to make their own decisions.
In many rural areas, if a visually impaired person or a person with low vision walks into a bank to open an account, most banks don’t comply. Bank officials often insist that the person should open a joint bank account with a person with sight, or open an account with no ATM card/cheque book facility or both. The situation is worse for those with hearing impairments and intellectual disabilities. If a person who is deaf visits a bank for availing the benefits of a scheme or service, the branch more often than not lacks the manpower to understand or interpret sign language. People with psycho-social disabilities are the worst hit — they require a guardian to sign a contract on their behalf.
The launch of the Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) in 2014 provided an impetus for financial inclusion. Under the PMJDY, the mandate is not restricted to opening accounts. The aim is to provide easier access to banks through the issuing of RuPay cards, which, incidentally, carry an inbuilt accident insurance cover of Rs.1 lakh. Providing small-value overdrafts based on satisfactory conduct of account, availability of low-cost life insurance (Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana) and accident insurance (Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana) and pension scheme (Atal Pension Yojana) are also part of the PMJDY initiative. However, disabled people are denied loan facilities. A majority of banks refrain from offering insurance to people with disabilities. The call for financial inclusion has thus become an illusion for disabled people.
Demonetisation and disability
The demonetisation move has further aggravated the problem. First, the Prime Minister uses a patronising term to refers to those with disabilities: ‘divyang’ (those with divine bodies). Second, there are long queues outside ATMs and banks, and disabled persons find it difficult to avail of cash and services in such an environment, especially in rural areas. Despite the RBI stating that “banks have to take necessary steps to provide all existing ATMs/future ATMs with ramps so that wheel chair users/persons with disabilities can easily access them”, most ATMs remain inaccessible. In the current environment, the government has proposed that there should be separate queues for persons with disabilities and for senior citizens, but the reality is starkly different.
The call for financial inclusion is a distant dream for disabled people who face harassment from financial institutions across the country. Banks and companies that offer insurance policies are not yet ready to accept disabled people as respected clients. The monthly state-sponsored pension, which is the sole meagre monetary support for many disabled people, hardly reaches them on time. The RBI and the government need to take punitive action against those errant officials and banks that contravene the RBI’s guidelines for providing banking facilities to disabled people. We must uphold the spirit of Article 41 of the Constitution (Right to public assistance for the disabled).
Avinash Shahi is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, JNU.