For the third day in a row, the coin-dispensing machine at Canara Bank (a public sector bank or PSB) had a notice stuck on it saying 'Out of order'.
Some customers made a wry face and went away. I decided to march into the manager’s cabin and ask why the machine hadn’t been repaired.
He gave me a bored, exasperated look and said, “It is not working.”
Sure, I can see that. “Why?” I asked again. “Because it is out of order,” he explains.
Why? I persisted (like a pesky kid).
He said “The repairman has to come from Pune to Bengaluru. That costs money. A lot of money.”
So what was the point in installing a fancy machine, at taxpayers’ expense, if it couldn’t be repaired locally (even in IT city)? He dismissed me by turning towards an employee, who was hovering near the cabin door with a ledger.
This is how government departments work. Why bestir oneself, when it is the public that pays?
* * *
Taxpayers had to file their annual self-assessment dues in December. I usually pay at the Canara Bank branch behind the income-tax office. This year, I was told that this branch would not accept my cheque and that I had to go to my own branch. Why? A shrug was the only answer.
So off I went, to my branch in south Bengaluru—only to find that they had moved. I am 80 years old and walk with a stick; in theory, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has rules about 'door-step banking' for elders. My email query to the manager again, brought no response.
No autorickshaw would come for short distances (800 metres, to the Bank’s new premises) so I walked , clutching my stick—and had to climb steps (with difficulty) to get into the branch at its new location. There was a cabin marked 'assistance to senior citizens' but it was unmanned.
"You have to go get the challan from counter 4” I was told, but the woman at counter 4 said I should go to counter 1.
By the time I returned home with my counterfoil confirming payment, I was exhausted.
“At least you got your work done, I had to go three times,” said a friend.
“Government of the people, for the people…”? Not quite.
Banks are now connected via internet, so why do customers have to go to a particular branch, to get a challan or pay in tax? Why do PSBs make senior citizens run around, when the RBI issued guidelines over a year ago, for 'doorstep banking'? Questions without answers.
I was once in an autorickshaw when the driver’s mobile rang; he stopped and answered the call, and kept saying “sorry sir, sorry sir, I promise sir…” etc, in a cringing tone. Turned out that he had taken a small loan of Rs1 lakh from a PSB for buying his vehicle, and the bank was harassing him for defaulting on two instalment payments, and threatening to confiscate his auto.
If he were Vijay Mallya or Nirav Modi, he could fly abroad and escape – but for the aam aadmi, the rules are different, right? He can be threatened, even if the amount he owes is a miniscule fraction of what the liquor baron and diamond merchant and others owe.
PSBs have total NPAs (non-performing assets) reportedly exceeding Rs6.78 lakh crore as on March 2020 (how many digits is that?) A generation ago, one never spoke of lakhs of crores. Now we do – that’s progress, right?
I have a small savings account at the State Bank of India (SBI) which I wanted to close when the branch moved away. The Bank wouldn’t let me. “Irli,” (let it be) they said, clinging onto a paltry few thousands that I had in my account.
As a patriotic citizen, perhaps I ought to let SBI (which has had to write off Rs9,000 crore, owed by Mr Mallya) use my money, to help it to tackle its horrendous NPA dues….My pleas that after the bank moved I find it difficult to attend to my account and want to close it, fell on deaf ears.
* * *
The latest is Bank of India (BoI), another PSB, asking my husband and me to fill in KYC forms afresh (why, when there has been no change in details?) We duly filled up the forms, and enclosed passport photos, now they want us both to go personally to the bank and produce the originals of our Aadhaar card, although we have sent in photocopies of our documents.
To prove that we are not cheating?
Are customers assumed to be crooks unless proved otherwise?
We entrust our hard-earned savings to the bank and receive harassment in return?
My husband is an 88-year-old patient undergoing prolonged treatment. And we have had our bank accounts for at least 40 years…
Earlier, whenever I complained to the banking ombudsman, I used to get a response, but the last two times I sent in my grievances, there has not even been an acknowledgement.
So much for 'customer being king'.
Where would banks be, without customers?
How many thousands of other citizens have the same experience as we have had?
Why do we take this lying down? It is our money, right?
(Dr Sakuntala Narasimhan is a Bengaluru-based senior journalist, writer, musician and consumer activist. She received the government of India national award for consumer protection, twice (1994 and 2000) and is a former Vice president of the Consumer Guidance Society of India, Mumbai. She is also a renowned senior vocalist in both traditions of Indian classical music - Hindustani and Carnatic, an A-graded artiste of All India Radio in both traditions.