Bank of Mauritius — Changing banknotes: Is this a priority?

In a press release dated 17th June 2016, the Bank of Mauritius (BoM) has announced that, after consulting with the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance and Economic Development, “it has been decided” that portraits of personalities appearing on the banknotes of the current family of banknotes will be replaced by elements which illustrate the country’s national heritage, history, culture and endemic species in the local flora and fauna. The release goes on to state that the current series of banknotes in circulation, bearing the portraits of political personalities, hasn’t been changed since 1999, that is, since 17 years.

Despite recognising that new polymer banknotes of certain denominations were issued not further back than 2013, the BoM considers that “it is high time for a new family of banknotes”, in a world where technological innovations have facilitated counterfeiting.

The question which arises is whether the objective sought is to deal with the risk of counterfeiting or to erase the political personalities from the banknote issue.

The fact that the foreign firm supplying our banknotes did a new set of certain denominations only as far back as in August 2013, did it not then take cognizance of counterfeit risks in the light of “technological innovations”? Besides, it shouldn’t mean that if a revolutionary technological innovation were to surface up tomorrow, we should be changing our banknotes. There are adequate security features to protect the banknotes to the extent possible.

Does it mean therefore that the real idea is to obliterate the figures of political personalities appearing on our current series of banknotes? This is the message that was actually conveyed in a press coverage the first time news was published about changing the existing banknotes in the local media.

It would be ludicrous to go as far as to replace a banknote series merely because of the past political figureheads appearing thereon. There would be more reason not to do so especially after consulting the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance who, after all, are political figures and would no doubt find themselves in an embarrassing situation if only to support a suggestion that past politicians be removed from the banknotes.

One only has to cast a cursory glance on countries which display political figureheads on their banknote issues. Where there is no royalty to portray, several countries choose to place effigies of their politicians who are seen as national unifying personalities. India has the portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, South Africa that of Nelson Mandela and China that of Mao Zedong, who symbolised the history of political struggles for their countries.

Countries which do not have a single overwhelming personality symbolising their essence, have placed effigies of various political, scientific, cultural personalities from their folds to illustrate the unifying and scientific cultural histories of their places.

Mauritius has followed the latter course as from 1999. Our banknotes feature politicians having formed part of different political parties, often at odds against each other, but having contributed altogether to project the country as one living in harmony despite diverse cultural and political sensitivities. They may be said to have been architects behind the history we have inherited.

Removing them from the banknotes in favour of flora and fauna not only denies a history of our demonstrated ability to live together as human beings but it also puts a premium over impersonal things like the flora, fauna and landscapes over struggles that have marked our advancement as a nation.

As far as we are aware, no one has complained about the various portraits of politicians appearing on our current banknote series. If the public did not protest over 17 years, would this suggest that the urge to change over would be coming only from the corridors of the Bank of Mauritius? One would have expected a public debate on the issue, taking the pros and cons into account, and not for the BoM to decide in solo that it was time to change over.

On the face of it, there is neither public consensus nor a good enough reason for the proposed change. One just has to recall how much of a public outcry was occasioned in the UK when the authorities decided to remove a simple thing like public telephone booths of the past in the age of the internet, because the public was of the firm opinion that the booths represented in their eyes a national heritage.

Why is the BoM changing the banknote issue at this time? Is it because the BoM is covering up for its public embarrassment after having issued a rambling communiqué lately in the wake of Mr Bheenick’s exculpation by two courts of the charge that had been brought up against him by the very BoM?

In any event, this communiqué was miles removed from the decorum, style and lofty public communication standard one should expect from any central bank of some substance. The proposed new banknote issue may have been seen as capable of undoing the not-so-pleasant image the BoM has projected of itself lately.

The members of the Banknote Design Committee set up in this connection by the BoM should under no circumstances be made to endorse the removal of the portraits of politicians from our banknotes. We appreciate that they are only being instrumental to guide the BoM in its selection of landscapes, etc., for a decision the BoM seems to have already taken, notably, to replace the banknotes bearing the effigies of past politicians with new ones as from 2017.

While the law empowers the central bank to issue banknotes, it does not invite it to do the replacement without rhyme or reason. After all, a new banknote issue comes at a significant cost and banknote printers are only too happy to benefit from contracts they secure with the changing moods of banknote issuers. One should also perhaps bear in mind that the huge stock of banknotes currently in circulation has been acquired at significant cost and that this money will go waste when the existing banknotes in circulation will have to be destroyed to make place for the new issue.

By the way, did we hear lately that the BOM has been in the red for quite some time? If true, one is at pains to understand the Central Bank’s decision, in these difficult times, to pay up millions more of rupees for new banknotes in the absence of a serious justification for so doing.

* Published in print edition on 24 June 2016

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