Our generation is what I call “Children of the Public Sector “era. A large number of today’s middle class India had parents who were working in it and we grew up believing that public sector was what kept the country going and the economy safe. The post 1990s era was full of misgivings as people wondered how this country would shape up with the “opening up of markets”. NGOs held dharnas to protest against the new economic policy- I myself have been part of the audience in many such “anti globalization” talks. But globalization is here to stay and we the children of the PSU era are now anyway part of it…!
Agreed we were raised on a diet of the PSU virtues but as educated and aware adults why are we still so fiercely protective of it? Does it really guarantee any public service or public support or for that matter even orient itself towards the public?
All of us have read about the nationalization of banks done with the objective of ensuring that the financial institutions reach out to everyone. As a student of agricultural economics I have studied about the importance of Priority sector lending and how it benefits the farmers through provision of credit. But have you ever tried to deal with a typical public sector bank? Let me share my experience.
One December 1st some National Savings Certificates of mine matured . I received the amount as a cheque issued by the Post Master – Mylapore. This cheque was drawn on the State Bank of India, Guindy Branch. I decided to deposit it on the 5th of December at a SBI branch very close to my house where I have an account. My presumption was that, being a local cheque it would probably get cleared within a day or two. I had plans to check on the 8th but I was rather busy and then I had to travel on the 10th and 11th . Finally on the 13th of December I decided to drop in at my bank to update my passbook. And guess what? The amount had not been credited! The cashier referred me to a lady whose designation said “ Manager – Operations “. An interesting character, she eyed me as though I was asking for the keys to the bank’s vault! She finally decided to “help” by saying “ Why did you deposit the cheque here? In these days of core banking systems you should have gone to Guindy and deposited it there” I asked her why should I do that as I had an account in their branch which was at my door step. “ But you are unhappy that it has not been cleared. I was only trying to help” she said glaring at me. I asked her if I wasn’t justified in becoming “ unhappy” considering that it was eight days since I had deposited the cheque?
One of the other Managers observing this interaction from a cavernous cabin inside suddenly seemed to take pity on me. He called me in and went through some records tracing the journey of the cheque. It showed that my bank had sent the cheque to Guindy only on the 8th of December! I asked him what they were doing for three days? He did not have an answer. He referred me to the Chief Manager who took a photocopy of my payment slip and promised to call the Guindy branch.
I presented myself at the bank again the next day. This time, Mr. Helpful noticed me immediately and told me” Madam, the Guindy branch is short of staff. So there has been some delay”. I could not believe he was giving me this answer! I asked him if their bank would like to hear from the Banking Ombudsman? That seemed to give him the jitters. He took me the Chief Manager’s boss. This gentleman was informed about my case ( with some editing on the date when their branch had sent the cheque to the Guindy branch). He in turn made a call and told me to check in the afternoon! I was really annoyed by now. The amount was fairly large and I asked him if their bank was willing to bear the burden of the interest amount I had lost in transit. He then gave me some cock and bull story about how “ government cheques” tend to get delayed! Anyway, I guess I had scared them a bit. So by afternoon when they called and informed me about the amount having got credited I felt like I had just won a war…!
While this is an example of our usual systemic Indian inefficiency, there has also been an occasion where I have been a victim of a personal bias. This was during the early days of my marriage. I was looking for a locker to keep my jewellery. Lockers as some of you may know were not easy to come by those days. I went to the Canara Bank near my house and enquired about a locker. I was referred to the person in charge of locker allotments. I explained my case to him and asked him if a locker was available. He looked through his records to verify the amount of deposits I had in their branch and then told me that lockers were certainly available. He asked me to come the next day and collect the application form as he had run out of them . He was very pleasant and even offered me coffee. I went back and told hubby that the locker search was now over.
The next day, I asked my husband to go and meet the gentleman in question at the bank and get the application form. He came back in sometime and informed me that I had probably misunderstood– that no lockers were available at the bank. I could not believe it! I asked him to tell me who he had met. He mentioned the name of the person he had met and also described him. The gentleman was the very same person I had met the day before. But from the way my husband described his interaction with the person at the bank I was getting a niggling doubt that something was amiss and I had a guess what it could be. I decided to go there myself.
This time, I decided to dress for the part- I wore a sari, put on the largest bindi I could find, and wore my “thali” chain like an armour around my neck before I entered the bank. My “locker contact” saw me and beckoned to me loudly from inside “ Hello madam. How are you? Have you come for the locker application form? I thought you had forgotten”. All this in typical Tam Brahm lingo. I in turn using the same lingo went on to say about how I was held up because I had to finish the cooking before coming there. He beamed at me and then produced the form. I filled it in and handed it over to him. I could see a sharp change come over his demeanor as he read through the details like “Name of husband”. He had probably never imagined that someone called Meera Sundararajan could have a husband with a Christian name. But he could not back out now. He completed the formalities and allotted the locker to me. When I finally took a look at the locker, I found it to be so small that if I put on a few kilograms my hand might get stuck inside it! I asked him if a bigger locker were not available. He said “ No” in a very short voice. I shrugged and signed the form taking possession of the keys!
All through my childhood I had been told how privately run enterprises run on the whims and fancies of the owners. But was this any different? These so called “custodians” of such public services behave like it is their private property using which they can hand out favors. But unfortunately, this ownership attitude does not extend to covering accountability issues!
The RBI has come up with a scheme called “financial inclusion” which seeks to ensure that every individual has a bank account. Zero balance accounts are accepted under this scheme just so that citizens get access to financial services. From a conceptual point this is wonderful! But when it comes to operations how are people going to get past the guys who implement them? How is a farmer in a village going to access a loan and ensure that the cheque comes in time for him to start his agriculture operations? All that bankers in rural branches seem to grumble about are the loan “write offs” by the government. But what about their own outreach services?
It is very unfortunate that in our country, these so called government owned services are not objectively delivered to citizens. Unless you “know someone” nothing and absolutely nothing can get done on time! Yes, there are a few conscientious bankers who are interested in efficiency and public accountability but they are few and far in between! Your average nationalized bank employee is only concerned about warming his seat and attending to customers depending on his mood. S/he likes your face or your background then they are willing to help. Otherwise… well I guess it is too bad!
All the technological progress that has come about in the banking sector has not in anyway changed the mindset of the people using and implementing them. These guys are like elephants- they cannot get behind the wheel of the Ferraris that are being designed and even if they do they prefer to drive them like an Ambassador car!
I used to sometimes marvel at the few bank robberies in my neighborhood thinking that the security systems must be excellent. But now I think otherwise – the banks are certainly being robbed. But the theft is a slow one in the form of delay in systems and procedures which consume our time and energy. And whoever said that criminal activities are restricted to just that kind of theft- isn’t communal orientation and prejudice also a crime?