If I was never really proud to be a banker, these are certainly not the times to have a change of heart when the entire species is steeped in disgrace around these tracts of the planet. In the apocalyptic times when Prime Minister Modi has unleashed a panacea to exorcise the land of all things evil by banning premium currency notes, the prosaic fellow in the bank down the street has turned out to be the Judas.
He has been caught pink-handed, this betrayer, trafficking the new currency of that same colour, exchanging the dead notes of the sinners into stacks of crispy purple, ganging up with the corrupt and the mafia and defrauding the common man of the rationed crumbs in the process, and thus foiling the grand plan of a civilisation at the brink of a revolution. There seems to have emerged an Axis of Felony of which he is the brightest star, a congregation of which he is the blackest sheep.
Allow me to present a variant perspective that I am sure was common to a zillion branches of commercial banks. With 86% of the legal tender rendered illegal at the stroke of midnight, banks were closed for public the day after to allow the systems to be tweaked for the hunger games to follow. We waited in silence for what seemed to be a storm in brewing. An explosive vacuum had been created and it was feeding on pervading panic, and we could feel it coming for us. All we could do was wring our hands not knowing what to expect or how to prepare for the enemy that would reveal itself only at arrival. Hectic commandments ensued from every possible corner, clarifications on which would keep coming long after, as usual in hindsight. Myriad tasks were rationalised and pushed back, roles redefined and several counters planned, all geared to deal with cash, dead and living. Some of us ran pillar to post to acquire the new, valid, pink notes that must be served to the masses, come tomorrow.
The zero-hour arrived the morning that followed. A restive deluge of humans stood facing the entrance. Their eyes were a cocktail of emotions, their lips formed questions that were lost in the cumulative clamour. We did manage to get them in separate queues for exchange, deposit, withdrawal, men and women, the handicapped and the senior citizens. But just before the opening time they all merged into one. There was a flurry of limbs flailing, bodies shoving, feet tap-dancing and trampling, even fisticuffs. Curses and invectives permeated the air. The conjoined crowd swayed and pushed towards the gate like a river in flood.
Tempers were in stratosphere for the most part of the extended work day. All that people wanted was to get the hell inside and assert their now compromised fundamental right to exchange, deposit and withdraw, with double the required force to compensate for the puny ceiling. To say we could have lasted for the day without the support of the police would be a falsehood. An alarming number of our visitors were hurting for scuffles, both verbal and physical. Late into the evening, when the last of them were gone, we began the painful process of extracting ourselves out of the mounds of cadaver notes and tallying the figures well past the midnight.
Everything recurred the next day at a more furious pace, with the added catch that a person was entitled to exchange the notes only once in the War Against Black Money. We feared some of our visitors were revisiting us to exchange currencies with alternate photo-id’s. We realised people had turned up from far off locations even though there were scores of bank branches in between. We could swear they had exchanged notes in some other banks with the same photo-id’s. There were women come with toddlers five year old with photo id’s and wanted us to exchange the baby’s notes too along with hers. Septuagenarian and octogenarian parents and uncles and aunts were pressed into service to gain privileged access to the counters. We would have been turned into salads had we tried to question their motives, so we focussed on helping out each and every one of them till the last man standing.
Meanwhile, long lost small depositors turned up with bulging tote bags. Long forgotten firm owners materialised with suitcases closed with extreme force on account of the excessive contents within. All day long, the branch reverberated with the burr of the note counting machines that kept slipping time and again, thanks to the dust-laden, long-stored notes being fed to them. Customers with their home branches in far flung cities kept harassing us for depositing amounts beyond the stipulated ceiling. Not to forget the beeline of the owners of safe deposit lockers who kept demanding priority treatment.
Since the dead notes could only be deposited, and all that was being deposited was dead notes which could not be handed back to the public, a deadly one-way traffic ensued. A similar phenomenon was unfolding with the newly issued notes too, since all that we could pay out was new notes along with a paltry number of smaller denomination that had survived the note ban. Whatever we were receiving was to be returned to the Maker, and whatever the Maker was providing was to be distributed to the Seekers. This double whammy of cash management resulted in a vicious circle of nightmares. There was immense reluctance on part of the chest branches both to receive the dead currency and issue the newly born. To be fair to the chests, they were battling with mammoth loads of counting, sorting and storing the dead ones on the one hand and the wispy supply of new notes from the central bank on the other. Their coffers were filling up fast with the lifeless tenders and they stank. No wonder we were treated like lepers turned up with bags of carrion.
Some of you may want to roast me alive for making petty stuff like exchanging, receiving, issuing and ferrying currencies unduly grandiose and momentous. The truth is, many more diktats were to come on top of the previously existing layers of regulations to complicate the matters further, such as the use of non-existent indelible ink on the fingers of exchangers, monitoring of deposit and withdrawal limits on various types and circumstances of customers, ensuring the authenticity of ID proofs, currencies and authority letters of the depositors: a matter of frequent contention. And to cap it all, we were all supposed to be the sleuths as well as the cavalry rolled into one. We were expected to ensure that everything that was deposited by the milling crowds was legal. Remember, we are doing the same till date. And although the chaotic crowds have ebbed down to manageable throngs in places, it appears there were those black sheep among us after all.
Although, like many, I have thrown my lot with the government’s mission, not only because I am expected to conform as a banker but I truly believe in what it is doing, I am getting this sinking feeling that we have been scarred for ever by the relentless and patently malicious crusade launched against us by the media. The mannequins of television are sparing no words in the thesaurus to paint the entire community with tar.
The other day, the ex-chairman of State Bank Group cut one such chatterbox to size and asked her to direct her questions at the folks who should be best answering them. A veteran of banking and finance, his observation that the Reserve Bank of India should stop misleading the country about the infusion and destination of new notes should provide much needed food for thought to the rulers as well as the ruled of this nation.
The dust is yet to settle as I write this and I am sure the heads will roll as they must, and the nefarious Axis be bust. However, are the powers that be fair enough to prune their own rotten apples? Have the bankers alone connived and colluded in toto to crash the demonetisation express in an inherently corrupt society? Could it be that the presence of a few black sheep among us is being used as a ruse to make the entire flock a scapegoat on the faltering stairwell of an envisioned utopia? Perhaps the congenitally rabid media on permanent life support of ‘Breaking News’ is missing the darkest black hole in the big picture.
Go, imagine your life without the banks.