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A symbol for the rupee
  By A.J. Philip  
  FEW government decisions have evoked the kind of warm response as the announcement made by Union Minister Ambika Soni about the selection of a symbol for the Indian currency on July 15, 2010. The Union Cabinet chose the symbol from the five entries shortlisted by a five-member jury appointed for the purpose.

The jury had received over 3,300 symbols from those who participated in a contest organised by the Government of India to select a symbol that symbolised the country's "ethos and culture". The winning symbol, designed by D. Udaya Kumar, a lecturer in the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, won a cash prize of Rs 2,50,000 ($5800).

The symbol idea had been in the works for quite some time. While tabling the Union Budget for 2010-11 in Parliament, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee announced to joyous thumping of the desk by the members: "In the ensuing year, we intend to formalise a symbol for the Indian rupee, which reflects and captures the Indian ethos and culture".

It was the growing influence of the Indian rupee in global markets that prompted the Indian government to think in terms of having a symbol for the rupee, though a much bigger economy like China does not have one for its Yuan. The Indian currency, known as the Rupee in English and 'Rupiah' in Hindi and variations of the word in other Indian languages, thus becomes the fifth currency in the world to have a distinct symbol.

Other currencies with their own symbols are the American dollar, the British pound sterling, the European Euro and the Japanese yen.

The new symbol is an amalgam of the Devnagiri consonant 'Ra' and the Latin letter 'R' without the vertical bar. The parallel lines in the symbol with the white space in between are an allusion to the national flag, also known as the tricolor because of the three colors used in it. Until the symbol was chosen, 'Rs' which is an abbreviation of the word 'Rupees' was used. The equivalents of 'Rs' were used in other Indian languages.

Internationally, another abbreviation 'INR' was used to distinguish the Indian Rupee from the Pakistani, the Nepali and the Sri Lankan currencies which are also called 'Rupee'.

Few people remember that the Indian rupee was the currency used in several countries like Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Mauritius etc till as late as the late sixties when some of these countries went in for their own independent currencies. India has a glorious numismatic tradition which dates back to the sixth century BC when coins were first used in the country.

One advantage of the symbol is that it can be used in all the Indian and foreign languages. When the new symbol was selected and announced, the government said it would take about six months for its full use in the country and 18 to 24 months in the world.

Nobody protested against the design of the symbol which is simple, elegant and can easily be drawn. The only criticism -- if it all it can be called criticism -- heard was that a country like India which has ambitions of emerging as a global economic power could have got away with a more imaginative symbol than the chosen one, which like the dollar symbol, the pound sterling symbol and the Euro symbol is essentially derived from a Latin letter.

It is not uncommon in India for political parties to take a stand on all issues under the sun and praise or criticise the government. In the case of the selection of the symbol, neither the Left nor the Right, neither the South Indian nor the North Indian had anything to complain about.

What is most noteworthy is that it did not take six months for the symbol to come to use in India, as the government expected initially. In fact, within a few hours of the announcement, the symbol was available on the Internet in a downloadable format. A small software company in South India went a step ahead and designed a whole new font and called it "Rupee Foradian", in which this column was originally written.

The company made the font available in downloadable format free of cost to anyone who wanted it. In the first one hour of making it available on the Net, over a 1,000 persons downloaded it and started using it. All that needed to be done was to download the font, cut and then paste it in the font section of the computer's font folder on the control panel.

The symbol would automatically appear on the screen when pressing the key just above the Tab key. A stand-alone symbol can also be downloaded which will sync with all the fonts available on the computer. The hardware industry has not lagged behind. TVS, one of the manufacturers of computer peripherals, has already introduced in the market a keyboard with the rupee symbol.

Computer giant Dell will, beginning September, introduce in the Indian market laptops and netbooks with the rupee symbol on the keyboard. Other computer manufacturers are unlikely to lag behind. Newspapers in India were the first to start using the symbol. In fact, most of them, including vernacular ones like the 'Malayala Manorama', started using it from the next day onwards. Advertisers, billboard writers and private and public limited companies have followed suit.

It was reported that when the Euro symbol was introduced in 1999, a total of $50 billion was spent on incorporating it in the computer and auditing systems the world over. The rate at which the Indian industry has adapted to the change suggests that the cost of the change-over would be a negligible fraction of this expenditure. In fact, for the common man, it does not cost at all to install the symbol on their computers.
While the rupee has overtaken the yuan in getting a distinct symbol with which it can be identified the world over, the full convertibility of the rupee remains a dream for the Indians, the fulfillment of which will give him as much, if not more, happiness.
The writer is a New Delhi-based senior journalist
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