You should not have any difficulty remembering the last time we struggled with automated teller machines (ATMs): it was in 2016 when the dark star of demonetization was shining over the land. The country’s new, corruption-free currency notes had not been designed to fit into the trays of India’s ATMs. What to do? Redesign the notes or re-engineer the ATMs?

Since India also happens to have one of the world’s lowest ratios of ATMs to the general population (only 22 per 100,000 adults), it must have seemed logical to modify the ATMs. And so they did.

Indians, it seems, have never needed cash more. Over 355 million new bank accounts have been added to the banking system since 2014. A huge number opened accounts when 86% of banknotes were declared illegal in November 2016. Direct transfers of welfare benefits to people’s accounts have made ATMs increasingly indispensable.

The Reserve Bank of India regrets, however, that the number of ATMs in India declined from 222,300 in 2017, second only to China, to 221,703, thanks to tighter restrictions and compliance requirements which made them unviable. They’re hard enough to find in big cities like Mumbai, but ATMs are as rare as horns on horses the farther you get from big cities.

In brief, more Indians need more ATMs than ever before, but are seeing fewer and fewer of them. Card transactions accounted for only a fraction of all transfers in India.

It’s reasonable to ask: Do ATMs ever make mistakes? After all, Boeing 737s do, space shuttles explode after launch, and the Titanic sank. How often might you get short-changed while withdrawing money from an ATM? Or overpaid? What is the ATM’s margin of error in counting money?

The answer, easily found, is—Gosh, I don’t know. Ohio-based Diebold, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of ATM machines, claims that it doesn’t track mistakes made by its machines. Because, they say, those mistakes are really rare. (The other valuable thing Diebold’s other machines count are votes. In 2009, Diebold sold off its vote-enumeration business after questions were raised about the accuracy and effectiveness of its machines.)

I admit I have never been short-changed by an ATM and I’ll wager you haven’t either. An electronic eye counts each note individually as it is picked from its stack. Extremely precise sensors detect notes stuck together by measuring thickness as it passes between rollers. The money pops out, you count it, and it seems to be exactly what you ordered. Works every time. All is good.

“Mistakes do happen," admits a senior director of market research and knowledge management at Diebold, but attributes them to human error such as poor maintenance or faulty loading of cash trays.

Here’s the catch: there are only three ways to ascertain if a machine miscounted your money: have the machine count it again, have another machine count it again, or count it manually.

What if the two machines deliver different counts? You have two options: repeat the two-machine recount, count on a third machine or count it manually.

Eventually, you would be left with a set of counts and most likely go with the more frequent one. If you were a genetic fusspot like I am, you might go for another confirmatory manual recount.

Counting money with your fingers is probably the most popular and yet the most error-prone way to count money. Apart from an inflated sense of efficacy and precision, our species believes that it can multi-task, prides itself in being able to talk while chewing paan, is easily distracted and is convinced that doing something slowly is the same as doing it accurately.

Plus we wet our fingers with spittle while counting.

I realize, with considerable anguish, a fundamental reality of life: You can never really know how much money you have in your hand. Go ahead, count it, but you have no way of knowing whether you miscounted it— except by counting it yet again and seeing if you get the same number.

No matter how often you count your money, whether with a machine or your fingers, you will finally perform an act of faith based on the best of several readings.

You could do worse than use the CY Strategy, my crafty ploy while paying someone money in small notes. It is based on the well-known human tendency to raise a stink if they’re underpaid but not object too strenuously if they accidentally received an extra buck or ten.

Assume you owe the jeweller 5,600 for the gold chain you will gift your darling wife on your wedding anniversary, and you have a wad of 100s. Carefully count out 56 notes, and recount it for accuracy—then quietly pocket a few notes, deliberately short-changing the jeweller.

His correct response should be to count, look puzzled, recount it, and then say, “Sir, this seems a little short." Silence might mean that he’s a lousy currency counter.

Or worse, that you are.

*C.Y. Gopinath is a journalist, author, designer and cook who lives in Bangkok.

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