Insights into Editorial: Excluded from financial inclusion
02 January 2017
It is said that the call for financial inclusion in the country has become an illusion for the disabled in the country. 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.
Why people with disabilities need special attention in the country?
As per the 2001 Census, there are around 2.19 crore persons with disabilities in India. They constitute 2.13% of the total population of the country. This includes persons with visual, hearing, speech, locomotor and mental disabilities. Despite these numbers, there is a lack of understanding of their needs, and people with disabilities face a number of obstacles when it comes to living a normal life, and availing banking facilities is a big part of the problem.
Making banking accessible for people with disabilities is both a best practice that should be followed, as well as a sound commercial decision. There are a large number of people in India with differing levels of disability, who would benefit from using banking services. Additionally, the number of people will only increase with time as India’s young population grows old, since incidence of disability increases with age.
Hurdles for disabled people to access banking services:
- 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.
- Disabled customers are also 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.
- Disabled people are also denied also loan facilities. A majority of banks refrain from offering insurance to people with disabilities.
- 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.
- A person with a learning disability, for example, dyslexia, will face severe difficulty filling out an application form (or any document for that matter) and banks are not disabled friendly in terms of the attitude of the staff towards such difficulties.
- The problem is exacerbated by the fact that around 75% of persons with disabilities live in rural areas, and only around 49% of the disabled population is literate and only 34% is employed. Although one may find some rare cases of disabled-friendly banking options in the metros, in the rural areas, there are neither facilities nor is there any sensitisation towards meeting the needs of the disabled.
What needs to be done?
- There are specific Reserve Bank of India (RBI) notifications that mandate banks to offer banking facilities in a non-discriminatory manner to all customers. The adoption of accessibility features and technologies in Indian banks today is very low, despite there being a legislative as well as executive push for the same. Banks which do not follow these guidelines are not meeting their legal requirements. RBI should ensure that all banks follow these guidelines.
- There are several international guidelines which can be referred to while formulating policy on banking accessibility, such as guidelines on ATM construction and modification (USA) and guidelines on making websites accessible for people with disabilities (the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines), as well as voluntary standards that have been taken up by banking associations in countries like Australia and New Zealand in order to make banking more accessible to people with disabilities and the elderly population.
- RBI should ensure that the bank staff is sensitised to the needs deaf customers, and know of a sign language translator who can be called if a customer requires it. Bank staff should be sensitised to the needs of blind customers, and ensure that there is a customer care executive who is present when a visually impaired customer needs assistance with a particular service.
- Another important step that needs to be taken by different banking institutions is ensuring that their ATMs and branches are accessible through a ramp, so that it is physically possible to reach from the road or other public area. Within the bank, there should be special provisions for people in wheelchairs or crutches, such as a designated queue and teller, so that they do not have to wait in queue for a long period of time.
- State and national governments should encourage opening of bank accounts by the disabled so that any funds or scholarships can be directly transferred into their account as opposed to being given to organisations which may not transfer it to the beneficiaries — this would help curb malpractices.
- Financial service providers should tailor accessibility solutions to address each kind of disability and the range of problems faced by the persons affected by them; they should look at best practices from around the world and implement solutions on their own steam instead of minimum compliance with the government or RBI requirements.
Constitutional Provisions in this regard:
Part III of the Constitution of India, which deals with the fundamental rights of citizens, recognizes the principle of equality of all people.
- Article 14 states that the government must accord equal protection of the law to any person within the territory of India. This recognition of the importance of non-discrimination means that the state must ensure that people with disabilities do not suffer disadvantages when it comes to accessing public services.
- Article 15, which deals with prohibition of discrimination on various grounds states that no citizen is to be subject to any disability, liability or restriction with regard to access to shops, public restaurants, and other public places.
- It is evident that this important constitutional protection extends to people with disabilities, and it is their right to gain equal and accessible access to all manner of services, including banking.
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. 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.
India is a signatory to both the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2006 and Biwako Millennium Framework towards an Inclusive, Barrier-free and Rights-based Society for PWDs in Asia and the Pacific, 2002 and thus has an international obligation to ensure equal access to all members of the population. This obligation extends to giving people with disabilities the right to conduct banking services. This has been recognised by several Reserve Bank of India (RBI) directives as well, although these guidelines have not been fully implemented so far.
Accessibility should not be treated as a corporate social responsibility measure by the large banks and financial corporations, but as a responsibility to be fulfilled regardless of anything else. 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).