x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Rupee earns long-overdue symbol

It's older than the American dollar or the Japanese Yen, but throughout its 500-year history the Indian rupee has lacked one thing: a symbol.

NEW DELHI // It's older than the American dollar or the Japanese Yen, but throughout its 500-year history the Indian rupee has lacked one thing: a symbol. In a country where handwritten receipts are still the norm and everything from depositing a cheque to sending a parcel requires filling out a form, Indians struggle daily with the issue of how to denote their currency.

Some opt to write the word out in full, while others use a single lower case "r" or "Rs or "Re" followed by a full stop or a dash. Others write "INR". Yesterday, however, that ambiguity came to an end as the Indian government approved an official symbol for the national currency. The new symbol, which the government hopes will become as recognisable as those of the US dollar, the Euro, the Japanese yen and the British pound, is based on letter "Ra" in the script used to write Hindi and Sanskrit.

"The new symbol is a combination of the Devanagari symbol 'Ra' and the Roman symbol 'R' without the vertical line," D S Malik, a spokesperson for the finance ministry, said in an interview. "It easily represents both the Indian word rupiah and the English word rupee." The symbol also incorporates two horizontal lines: one running above the "ra" - in keeping with the way the Devanagari script is traditionally written - and one running through its middle. Mr Malik said the two lines represented the equals sign, a stable economy, and also the Indian national flag, the Tricolour. "The new sign will work in harmony with other currency symbols around the world while also clearly distinguishing itself as Indian." The move highlights India's transformation from a centrally planned economic weakling to an emerging powerhouse with a US$1.2 trillion (Dh4.4tn) economy following 20 years of liberalising market reforms. It also reflects India's growing ambitions for the rupee to be used more in international trade, and perhaps as a reserve currency, in part to counterbalance the growing clout of the Chinese renminbi. "India needs to take steps to increase the role of the Indian rupee in the region to catch up with the growing influence of the Chinese Renminbi," a recent report from the Reserve Bank of India, the central bank, concluded. The new symbol was designed by D Udaya Kumar, a post graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, and was approved by the Cabinet following a competition which attracted more than 3,000 entries. The symbol will not feature on currency notes or coins, but will be included in the Unicode Standard - which ensures consistent representation of scripts in the computing industry. It will be adopted within six months in India, and within 18 to 24 months globally, and will feature on computer keyboards and software as well as in print and electronic media, according to the Indian government. The central government plans to launch a campaign to encourage state governments to adopt usage of the symbol. The rupee has been in use since the 16th century, when the conquering Afghan emperor Sher Shah Suri coined the term "rupiya" - a word thought to be derived from the ancient Sanskrit "rupyakam", which means "wrought silver". Over the last five centuries, the Indian rupee has at different times been the official currency of countries as far flung as Somalia in East Africa and Australia. It remained the official currency of Dubai and Qatar until 1959. Today, several other South Asian countries, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal, are also have their own versions of the rupee - another reason why India wants its own unique symbol. The Indian government now hopes that its new symbol will take off as quickly as that for the Euro - the last major currency sign to be introduced, also through a competition - and become a recognisable brand for the entire country. "A currency is an ambassador of a nation, a representative of the land, its people, its history and its economy," said Harish Bijoor, a branding specialist based in Bangalore and Dubai. "The new symbol has a link with the past but is at the same time it is modern, simple, easy to remember. It can be written by any Tom, Dick or Harish." @Email:hgardner@thenational.ae