The back-breaking burden on bank employees after demonetisation of high denomination rupee notes is a story of heroes and villains. On the one side is the incredible devotion to duty, working long hours to cope up with the pressures of dispensing cash to thousands of customers on a scale never experienced before.  And on the other are the street-smart staffers, sensing a golden opportunity to get rich quick beyond their wildest dreams.  A piquant situation.  Raman Swamy writes about the scenario, with some bon mot …

The total lack of planning and preparation before plunging the nation into a cash crunch of epic dimensions also has two sides to it.  Some are still under the illusion that it is the duty of all citizens to bear the hardship with a patriotic smile in the fond hope that corruption will be eradicated from the motherland.  Others view it as a hasty decision taken by the Prime Minister for motives that may have little to do with flushing out black money from the economy.

Whatever the intentions or the ultimate outcome, the burden of coping with the desperate cries for cash has falled on the shoulders of anonymous men and women – cashiers and clerks, officers and managers – working in tens of thousands of bank branches in rural, semi-urban, peri-urban, urban and metropolitan areas across the length and breadth of India.  Unsung heroes of demonetisation, some of them however see the chaos and confusion as a chance to become instant millionaires by helping convert hoards of black money into legitimate currency.

Bank employees of all grades and designations have been under tremendous pressure ever since demonetisation was announced on November 8.  They had never imagined that they would have to work so hard, for such long hours and for so many days and weeks at a stretch. They had no idea that there would be so much tension, so much multi-tasking, so few occasional words of praise and so many angry costumers to soothe. Above all, they had never realized that the big bosses in their own bank headquarters and in the mighty RBI could be so incapable of crisis management.  The truth is that the image of the RBI has fallen in the eyes of even the most loyal and uncomplaining of bank employees.

In bank branches all over the country, especially in smaller banks branches and the far-flung ones where no officer likes to be transferred, there is an acute shortage of staff.  In spite of this, the vast majority of bank employees entrusted with manning the counters have valiantly risen to the challenge of trying to cope with the complex task of catering to the never-ending rush of people, counting currency notes, verifying account details and making entries.

Behind the scenes, away from direct public gaze, are the officers and assistants, tearing their hair keeping track of transactions, making sense of the latest instructions in the rules and limits, anxiously waiting for the arrival of ATM technicians and sending SOS messages and reminders to their regional superiors for urgent cash replenishments.

In the midst of this, laid down procedures and security norms are invariably observed in the breach.  Everyone on the payroll, including the gunmen and the sub-staff in the lowest Grades, has to be lend a hand in a multitude of tasks they have never done before and for which they have had no previous training.  A common sight is that of a security guard sitting inside the cashiers cage, with his long double-barrelled firearm leaning against the wall, helping the chief cashier count bundles of soiled banknotes.

Counting cash is not as easy as it looks.  It is often the case that a bundle counted twice always seems to contain a different number of notes.  Cash counting machines frequently malfunction and manual counting becomes necessary.  It is not surprising, therefore, that mistakes happen, even in normal situations.  The reality is that in the nightmarish atmosphere prevailing inside all bank branches during the past three weeks, mistakes are happening on a massive scale.  Under the excruciating pressure of impatient customers waiting to deposit their old 500 and 1000 rupee notes, normal precautions become impossible.  Speed tends to become a higher priority than Accuracy.

For cashiers, this can have serious consequences.  Under tremendous stress, cashiers can hardly concentrate in such an atmosphere.  But the rules are strict.  They will have to pay from their own pockets for any shortfalls when the currency notes are tallied every evening before closing.

The excuse that the errors were committed due to “high level of stress” does not protect them from the consequences.  No point in pleading that as compared to the normal volume of 50 to 60 transactions a day, there are now upwards of 450 transactions. Not only do they have to make up for shortfalls, they also have to do so the same day before going home.  What is worse is that in most branches, every employee is forced to double up as a cashier.  Fearing angry customers, employees from peon to a manager are working as cashiers, and they often make mistakes while dealing with the crowd which leads to their own financial loss.

According to the RBI’s own figures, in the first ten days alone, banks across the country had received Rs 5,44,571 crore in deposits and old notes submitted for exchange. This included deposits of Rs 5,11,565 crore and exchanged currency notes of Rs 33,006 crore.  These are huge numbers of currency notes of various denominations.   In the 20 days since then, the volume of cash being handled would have trebled.

What has not been brought to the notice of the public is that so far thousands of complaints have been lodged by banking staff across the country.  Some of the complaints pertain to disputes between staff members, some are related to bad behaviour of customers and some are protests against being held responsible for missing money.

A large number of complaints are against bank managements for not taking into consideration the human factor of employees working under high stress.  As things stand, in many cases, bank employees often have to resort to desperate measures to mend their mistakes and avoid deductions from their personal salaries.  When the daily accounts are found not to tally, there is a sense of deep resentment and even panic. Cashiers often borrow money from their colleagues to settle the accounts before leaving the bank. In case an official fails to do this, proceedings can be initiated against him.

According to rough estimates, the 10 lakhs bank employees have catered to almost 50 crore people in these past four weeks.  One of the demands being made by bank employees associations is that apart from banks and post offices, the task of cash disbursements should be also entrusted to other government agencies like the Railways, LIC offices and other Government departments with direct dealing with the public.  This would have increased the number of outlets and contact points for the public and considerably eased the burden on the banks.

There are many new forms of pressure at the teller counters, where long lines of customers who have been waiting for hours sometimes make unreasonable demands or use rude language.   They do not take in account that the clerks and cashiers are involved in multitasking at a break neck speed – checking forms, scrutinising identity proofs, verifying old notes that have been deposited and ensuring that cash withdrawals are within the prescribed daily and weekly limits.  Cases of impatient and irritated customers tending to let off steam have become a daily occurrence in most banks.  Some customers even claim that they have not been paid and the cashier gets confused, and ends up paying the same customer twice over.

These are cases of genuine errors being committed under stressful working conditions.  On the other side of the picture are the numerous malpractices being systematically committed in thousands of bank branches.  Without evidence it is difficult to tabulate the various ways in which old notes are being laundered with the active connivance of bank employees.

It is an open secret, however, that there are many black sheep who receive large volumes of illicit notes from black money holders and exchange them for new notes at a discount.  Some of the old notes are deposited in newly created fictitious accounts or in existing Jan Dhan accounts with low balances.  The inquiry that has reportedly been ordered into the suspiciously large volume of deposits in Jan Dhan accounts is an indication that this is one of the ways in which this is being done.

Insiders say the few stray reports that have come to the surface are only the tip of the iceberg.  The list of strange goings-on are legion – stories being told of large-volume transactions in some branches long after closing hours, terse announcements by some banks that some staffers have been suspended, the bizarre case of a taxi driver in Delhi suddenly finding a credit of Rs 8000 crore in his account, the frequent modification of rules by the RBI aimed at “plugging loopholes”, the mysterious disappearance of one-rupee notes, etc..  Clearly, ingenious ways are being found to beat the system, details of which may never come to light without a full investigation.  Till then, all that can be said with tragic certainty is that many of the big fish in the black money ocean have already been able to swim to safety, and only the small fry have been caught in the net.

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