On Friday, Vikas Jain was in a panic as he reached his desk at the nationalised bank in South Delhi at which he works. Outside was a queue of at least 100 people, copies of identity documents in hand, waiting to exchange the Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes demonetised by the Reserve Bank of India on November 9. The previous evening, the RBI had decided that over-the-counter exchange of notes would no longer be permitted – but few customers knew that.
Fearing that customers – some of whom had been in line for more than two hours – would be upset when they discovered that they’d waited in vain, the bank got the police to announce the news. Almost immediately, customers started shouting angry slogans. “For a few minutes, we thought there will be violence,” Jain said.
The three weeks since demonetisation was announced has been especially hard on bank employees. They have faced customers impatient at the idea that they can withdraw only limited amounts of their own money, dealt with acute shortages of new notes and also kept up with an incessant barrage of regulatory tweaks and changes. Bankers have put in much longer hours, skipped meals and weekend breaks.
Over the next few days, they fear it will get worse. With the new month starting on Thursday, bank employees are bracing for a significant spike in the number of people seeking to withdrawing a portion of their salaries to meet essential expenses.
They are hoping against hope that the RBI will be able to increase the supply of cash to meet the new month’s demands. They also want the government to increase security across banks to help them perform their duties without any fear of commotion.
Bankers said when demonetisation was implemented on November 9, most customers had already withdrawn the cash necessary to meet the month’s expenses. They had even paid out most pensions, so were able to focus on exchanging demonetised cash.
But as December begins, not only are the branches expecting a huge rush for withdrawal, they would also have to attend to pensioners queuing up to access their monthly funds.
Thomas Franco, a top official of the All India Bank Officers Confederation, said even the smallest of branches attend to hundreds of pensioners in the first week of every month. Usually, these branches will create separate counters for the pensioners.
For some of these senior citizens, pensions are the only source of income and any delay would cause extreme hardship.
Given the current cash crunch, Franco believes that pension disbursal will be hurt. “When it is the pension pay-out day, employees usually request other customers to come back on another day to complete their work,” he added. But since everyone now required cash, this option doesn’t exist. “If we tell people we don’t have cash, they are going to get angry,” he said.
This is compounded by the shortage of Rs 100 notes. More and more customers are visiting banks multiple times with requests to exchange Rs 2,000 notes for Rs 100s, arguing that they were not able to use the higher denomination notes for small transactions. This problem has been severe in semi-urban and rural areas.
Unions have alleged that since the demonetisation, 11 bankers have died from conditions related to the heavy workload.
Bank managers who spoke to Scroll.in said the situation was so intense that even those employees who need leave for genuine reasons were being asked to postpone their commitments.
The manager of a public sector bank in Chittaranjan Park in New Delhi, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said customers were getting more agitated by the day. “Cash supply from RBI has decreased in the last five days,” he claimed.
This meant, some of these branches had to curb withdrawals to ensure all those in the queue got some amount of cash. “But by evening on Friday, we had instructions not to limit withdrawals. With such slow supply, we will run out of cash in one or two hours,” he claimed.
Frequent changes in withdrawal limits have added to the misery of these employees. It takes customers a while to get to know of the changes. On many occasions, irked customers begin abusing the staff, accusing them of arbitrarily changing rules. “The primary accusation was that we are doing all such things to help rich customers,” the official said.
The most chaotic day was November 25, when the RBI decided overnight that it would stop over-the-counter exchange of notes. “That morning, we came to office in fear,” he said. Many in the crowd had no idea about the exchange ban as they queued up very early before the papers could come out.
A manager of an Indian Bank branch in Chennai said applications for loans have been piling up over the last few weeks and banks were not able to complete the various verification processes that are mandatory to award loans. “Most employees are being utilised to help ease the liquidity crunch,” he added. Assessment of risk is a vital job that cannot afford anything less than 100% focus.
Jaydeep Bhatt, another banker, said last Saturday, he had to stay longer at office as two education loan applications had to be processed. “At first, we said it won’t be possible,” he said. “But the parent started weeping.”
Withdrawal restrictions for marriages have also turned out to be tough to implement. Bhatt said they had a case where the wedding had been scheduled for the first week of January. But the RBI notification stated that withdrawal of Rs 2.5 lakh would be allowed only for weddings before December 31. “How could you convince a girl’s father about this? It was very hard to see their faces. After all, it was their money,” he said.
Vishwas Utagi, vice-president of the All India Bank Employees Federation, said processing retail loans such for home and automobile has completely stopped. “It has been so from November 9,” he said, even though the period between Diwali and New Year is an important season for retail loans.
The Indian Bank manager said branches are bound to take a hit in performance in the loans category for which they would be answerable to their bosses. “But this is the least of our worries,” he said. “Without proper supply of cash, we will not be able to face the crowd at the beginning of the month.”
His branch has also seen a spike in requests for debit cards, cheque books and net banking facilities in the last 20 days. Completing such requests in a nationalised bank required a lot of paper work, which branches are struggling with.
The official said lunch breaks have been reduced to 15 minutes in most branches. This break too was taken in turns to avoid the queues outside getting longer.
Bank officers said they were hoping that the government would provide additional security to bank branches in the coming days to tackle the expected increase in rush.
“The crowd will not listen to private security. We want some formal security to the branches,” the Chennai bank official said.
Unions have already flagged with the government the several incidents of branches being attacked by angry crowds.