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50manposes Cash click: A man poses with large copies of Rs 1,000 notes at a street art exhibition in Mumbai | AFP

How bankers have been dealing with demonetisation

  • Experts said the situation would worsen from this week as customers start coming to draw their salaries.

The officials at State Bank of India’s Nellore branch could not believe they lost one of their colleagues to demonetisation. The “demon demonetisation”, as they called it, claimed the life of deputy manager S.K. Sheriff, 46, who allegedly succumbed to unusually high levels of stress and workload.

“We were so happy when he had cleared the banking entrance exam,” said S.K. Shajahan, his brother. “But, today we really wish that he had not. The way he was working for 14 to 15 hours every day was sure to drive any normal person mad.”

Apparently, in the aftermath of demonetisation, more than 12 bank employees have died because of stress. Moreover, there has been a constant threat of harassment by crowds. Just two days before his death, an angry crowd had locked up Sheriff and his colleagues in the branch.

However, had it not been for the diligence and composure of the bankers, the government’s demonetisation drive would not have been successful.

On November 8, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced demonetisation, the Reserve Bank of India was briefing bank chiefs of the impending chaos.

Later in the night, there were several internal meetings at banks’ corporate headquarters, trying to figure out what to do. The following morning, circle officers were briefed, who in turn told branch managers how to go about the implementation.

“We were expecting a very large crowd, so we had asked our branches to open maximum number of counters,” said Prashant Kumar, deputy managing director and chief operating officer at SBI. “Everybody was asked to leave other work and concentrate only on demonetisation. We also extended work hours and opened on the weekend. So, November 9 was completely spent on preparing our systems and communicating with the last mile branches.”

Communication, in fact, was one of the important factors that helped banks wade, however sloppily, through the demonetisation mess. Top management sent motivational mails and there was continuous feedback through in-house portals and WhatsApp.

Cash was never a problem for SBI, said Kumar. As India’s largest bank, it owns 50 per cent, or 2,000, of the currency chests in the country. “It was more of a crisis of denomination because two notes of significant value went out of circulation,” he said.

At SBI, one currency chest takes care of eight to 10 branches, or even more at times. In the initial days after demonetisation, ATMs had to be replenished twice a day. But, with recalibration, which meant they could dispense the new notes, cash is being refilled only once a day.

“In the initial days, we were staying at the office till 12.30 in the night, taking stock of the day’s happenings and then preparing for the next day,” said a general manager (operations) at one of the public sector banks.

Though the madness seems to have subsided in the metros, it continues at tier 2 and tier 3 towns, where people are averse to using alternative modes of payment.

“People think we are the culprits,” said Neelam Pujari, a clerk at Bank of India’s Frazer Road branch in Patna. “They feel the government has given us money but, because of some conspiracy, we are not giving it to them.”

Exchanging notes and handling deposits involve a lot of human intervention, said bankers, and increases the amount of work for bank employees. “With a skeletal staff of four to five employees or maximum eight employees, how does the government expect us to manage everything?” asked C.J. Nandakumar, a single-window operator at Union Bank of India’s Thrissur branch in Kerala.

Moreover, the recent focus on branchless banking and increased dependence on banking softwares has resulted in reduced hiring. There is a shortage of approximately 2 lakh people, mostly in clerical roles. The emphasis is more on “do-it-yourself” banking and, therefore, there are cash deposit machines and cheque deposit boxes. This has led to branches shrinking to about 300 sq ft at some places. There is barely space for 15 to 20 people at such a branch and one bank employee, on average, handles 300 to 400 people. “There is no time to have lunch or water or even move away from the workstation,” said Nandakumar, who is also the national president of the Bank Employees Federation of India.

The paucity of currency has hit bankers the most. There are not enough Rs 500 and Rs 2000 notes. “Sometimes, the currency gets over even before evening. In that case, we have to wait for a day for the new lot to come. But, customers become very impatient and start creating a hue and cry,” said Pujari.

“We totally acknowledge the work and effort put in by our branch level employees,” said a managing director at a public sector bank. “We can’t thank them enough for it. At times, we have felt motivated by them.”

Experts said the situation would worsen from this week as customers start coming to draw their salaries.

Apart from the stress and work overload, a lot of bankers have also lost money because of demonetisation. If any amount is missing during tallying, which happens because of the chaos, they have to replace it from their own pocket.

“I must have spent at least Rs 4,000 from my own pocket to match the accounts during closing,” said Rajendra Yadav, a cashier at Punjab and Sind Bank’s Noida sector 52 branch.

After having worked almost 12 hours every day and close to eight hours on weekends, Pujari was expecting a decent amount as overtime. But, her hopes were shattered. “Most of the public sector banks are now faltering on their compensation promises,” said C.H. Venkatachalam, general secretary of the All India Bank Employees Association. Kumar, however, refuted the claim. “SBI was very prompt in giving overtime to our staff,” he said.

Said Venkatachalam: “Banks had extended working hours, but there were people who worked much beyond the extended hours. Now, banks are compensating employees only for the extended hours and not the extra effort they had put in. It is grossly unfair. As a union, we were encouraging our people to help the government. But, next time something like this comes up, we might have to think twice.”

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The Week

Topics : #Demonetization

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