08TH November, 2016 (Tuesday)
I work in a Public Sector Bank, serving in a backward district (as per the government classification) in a small rural town of Tamil Nadu. Most of the account holders are farmers, Agricultural labourers and Pensioners. The first week of November, as usual like other months had queues till evening as customers came to withdraw their salaries and pensions. The situations seemed to ease on 07th and on 8th and the transactions were normal. Looming NPA is an issue in almost all banks and recovery of these bad loans is almost a day to day activity. We had an informal meeting that day for the strategies to be followed to increase CASA (Deposits and Savings) in line with the ongoing campaigns in the bank, met few bad loan borrowers and late in the evening there was an official visit by the Chief Regional Manager to appraise the performance of the branch. At around 19:30 Hrs the activities of the day was over and everyone disbursed back to their homes. My home is an hour from my branch and I travel by own vehicle every day. I reached home at 20:30 HRS, television was not switched on and I turned on my WiFi to have a glance at my WhatsApp. Within seconds, my WhatsApp was flooded with chats and messages in groups. I usually have the habit of opening individual messages before proceeding to the groups. One of my friend who is in Abu Dhabhi sent a screenshot of popular Tamil daily which was running a scroll about the Demonetization and asked me whether it was true? Without thinking a minute, I replied it might be a fake message. However, I was surprised by the chats in the groups and instantly switched on my television to realise that it is in fact true. The next few hours went in attending/making calls to friends, relatives etc. I personally felt it to be strong and bold move to curb terrorist financing, counterfeit currency and black money.
09th November, 2016 (Wednesday)
It was declared holiday to public, but it was a non-business working day to the staff. With no idea of what is going to happen on that day we came to the branch as usual. Guidelines started to come slowly. First we compiled the denominations available with us on that day and forwarded it to our Regional Office/Central Office, Which in turn forwarded it RBI to get a glimpse of Rs.500/Rs.1000 already in hand with banks in their Branch Vault, Currency Chests, ATM’s, Business Correspondents etc. We went through the Circulars to get idea about the procedures and forms to be collected. Rs.500/Rs.1000 currencies in the branches were remitted to the currency chest and new Rs.2000 denominations and other small denominations were stocked in the vault to disburse next day. We made sure sufficient quantities of forms and slips are available. Despite some arrangements were made for the next day, I was in fact little tensed to handle the anticipated unprecedented rush.
The Last 10 Days: 10th November to 19th November
Business hours of my branch start at 10.00 A.M and I usually reach my desk between 09.30 – 09.45 A.M to begin work. Being the re-opening day after demonetization, with no ATM’s to serve I started bit early and almost all banks on my way to my branch was flooding with people, couple of hours earlier than the business hours. My first site of relief is after seeing the police personnel who were deployed to maintain law and order situation. We briefed them about how we have planned to handle and strictly made everyone to come in queue’s to serve faster and better. So our team had two officers (including me), three clerks (who are authorised to handle cash), 1 sub-staff, 1 Jewel Appraiser, 4 Business Correspondents and 1 constable from the local police station. Among us only the three clerks can officially sit in counter’s to take and pay cash. It means officers cannot use their login to sit in counters to take cash. We deployed all three clerks and opened 3 counters for deposits and withdrawals. Depending on the queue in the other counter, they often swapped to receive and give payments. Business Correspondents and Jewel Appraiser were used to help people to fill forms and brief them about procedures. By this way we tried our best to make sure nobody waits in queue and is turned back later for want of documents.
To my surprise the first day was in fact pleasant. People listened to us and in fact supported us. There was absolutely no chaos (at least in my branch).Since all the clerks were used for deposits and withdrawals, I decided to give exchange from my desk by taking documents. Though it is little risky, you absolutely don’t have any choice. If something goes wrong, you need to answer as you are not expected to handle cash (for which cashiers are there) with little security around you. The new menu/ program created overnight by the IT team to exchange cash, was in fact a blessing in disguise. All the counting machines with UV facility to trace counterfeit currency were with the cashiers/clerks. I have to give exchange, but I cannot claim shortage of UV machines as a reason for fake currency exchanged by me without checking. I deployed a Business Correspondent (BC) for this purpose. Once I receive the document and cash for exchange, I gave the cash to him who stood near me. He takes few steps to the reach the counting machine with UV near a clerk and verifies its originality. Meanwhile, I verified the documents, fed them into the system and once the BC returns back after checking the currency, I took back the cash and exchanged new currency. This entire process took less than 15-20 seconds for a customer. To be short the BC near me was in fact running between the counters. What worried us was that even customers who had bank account didn’t prefer to deposit their cash in their accounts, even though the queue for deposits was much smaller than exchange. Though our system gave warning of any repeated identification number and mobile number, which is already fed to exchange cash. Some people started coming with different id’s and mobile numbers. Literally, if someone has PAN, ADHAAR, Voter Id, Driving Licence, Govt Issued ID Card and NREG Card. He can swap 6 times by providing different mobile numbers in a particular bank. Now you can imagine what if he does in all the other banks. The commission market by touts, kept the exchange queue’s never ending which added to our worry, as fear started creeping in that exchange queue is never going to end. We were able to stop few of those who exchanged already if we are able to remember them. But it often resulted in heated arguments.
When we closed?
To be frank many branches (which had currency chest) were almost open 24*7 and staff stayed there round the clock to make sure the dependent branches get their share of cash supply to handle their next day demand. In other branches the first two days (10th and 11th), the business hours were extended infinitely. Though the media briefed that timing have been extended till 20:00 Hrs. The instruction passed on to us was different. We were asked to serve till 20:00 Hrs or till the last customer whichever is later. Once the last customer was served, we then started the verification of the transactions, tallying of the cash with us and in the books. If everything goes right and the cash tallies, all is well. If there is short or excess, then it becomes a night mare. Technically, you cannot close your day when there is short or excess cash. Now the drama begins again late in the night. We take back all the vouchers of the day, check one by one again, verify the denomination and have to find from where the excess or short cash has come. If it is found, then its fine, if not then the cashier who had shortage in cash has to pay from his pocket. Yes, you read it right. He has to pay from his pocket the same day immediately to wind up. If there is excess, we park it in a temporary account (technically called Sundry Creditors) which has to be rectified in the subsequent days. With the load of work and stress, many cashiers have lost their hard earned salaries due to cash short at the end of the day. Many branches after tallying closed even at 01:00 or 02:00 in the mid night and despite the fact, he has to return next day well before the time to handle the queue. No leave strictly at any cost.
Food and Tea?
We sat like machines, once you sit, you cannot stand again. Tea served at your desk, but you cannot have it till it chills. Most of the days we went to lunch around 15:00 Hrs and finished it in 10 minutes. As box from the home took extra time as we have to wash the plates and utensils. I personally didn’t take box from 11th and bought packets from nearby hotel, so that it is easy to take and move on immediately.
Closing the Gate
The extension of time was for first two days. Despite the fact we tried to accommodate internally on Saturday and Sunday for some time even after the business hours. But how long can we keep on accommodating? At some point you have to close it and this was a break point in many branches which even led to heated arguments. Most of the abuses are not from our regular customers, but from others who came at last minute to exchange. The most painful moment is that, the out of the few who created chaos at the last minute abusing the frontline cashiers were in fact exchanging on behalf of someone for a commission. As Business Correspondents are localities, they come out with information about “who does what on behalf of whom”. Of course, yes we cannot do anything, as you cannot prove that the Rs.4000 is not his. Absolutely there is nothing other than placing inks in their finger was the option left behind to curb multiple exchanges in multiple banks. Whether it is right or wrong is different. The government had no other options which will work. Though there was announcement over it, it is only urban/ metro branches which got the inks earlier. Even till today many rural branches are yet to receive. But what happened as a result of the announcement is something different. There was a drastic reduction in people who turn to exchange, which helped us to focus on our own customers in the counter.
I absolutely had no regrets joining the banking industry. In fact I was proud to be part of the black money clean up drive. Yes, our personal life and commitments got disturbed slightly. All these days, I just came back to home to have a sleep for few hours, not sure of the stock of vegetables and other groceries in home hoping my family would have managed, skipped all marriages and functions, asked my spouse to go alone to temple on our wedding Anniversary. But I understand all these are temporary. After all there is another Sunday to manage these commitments.