Fifty days in the life of a bank’s branch manager

An excerpt from From Lehman to Demonetization, the latest book by Tamal Bandyopadhyay

9 January 2017

This is from the diary of a branch manager of an Indian bank. He lives in the Mumbai suburbs, takes a local train to work and usually heads back home by 7 p.m.

Life took a different turn after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the historic announcement of a currency swap on 8 November 2016. Roughly 86 per cent of the 15.50 trillion worth of currency in circulation was to be replaced in the world’s secondmost populated country where a bank branch caters to an average of 10,000 people.

For the next fifty days till the exercise ended on 30 December, the branch manager had to occasionally sleep at the branch when he missed the last train home. He had to make sure that every customer was taken care of and that the bank could use the opportunity for generating low-cost current and savings accounts. On top of that, he needed to be on his toes so that none of his colleagues were used for money laundering.

He is one of the 1,30,000-odd branch managers of banks in India—and this is a story of every branch manager in the country. This thirty-three-year-old banker works for a private bank in Mumbai, and heads a relatively new and small branch. For privacy, I am neither naming the banker, nor his bank. Every character and incident mentioned in this diary is true.

Back from a four-day holiday in the first week of January at Matheran, a hill resort in Maharashtra, with his three-year old daughter and wife, this man looks back at those fifty days as something surreal.

Edited Extracts from His Diary

The 7.04 a.m. Virar local at Nalasopara was late. My heart sank when I heard the late arrival announcement. Would I be able to reach office on time? How long would it take to get a taxi from Dadar station? Thank God, the train was late by just five minutes. By the time I reached the branch, there were about fifty people waiting outside, patiently. That was 10 November, two days after the demonetization announcement. The branch was closed the previous day.

The first thing that nine of us in the branch did was huddle in a corner—the way a cricket team does before taking the field. I told them that we need to serve the customers to the best of our ability and we will never compromise our integrity. This is a lifetime opportunity to prove to the world what we can do. That became a daily ritual till 30 December. We did not ask for any reinforcement of staff from the headquarters. Nine of us formed three teams—two of my colleagues were managing the queue of the customers with the help of a lone, unarmed security guard; three were handling data entry and another three were at the two cash counters. I was overseeing the work of all three groups.

Three Transactions

Many customers were making three transactions—one each for deposit of cash, withdrawal of cash and exchange of old notes. Reconciling the data was very critical as any shortfall of money was to be made good by us unless the amount was too big. In such cases, an internal inquiry could be instituted. We needed to make sure that the money deposited must tally with the amount we had in the vault. One day in the train I heard a gentleman sitting next to me, a branch manager of a large public-sector bank, telling someone higher up in his bank on phone about a 18-million shortfall in his branch and begging for more staff. Thankfully, in our case we needed to make good only 300 one day.

Such things can happen even if you’re alert. One day, to my horror I found how ingenious people can be! A person was busy filling in the form for depositing money, but actually he was carrying no money. He probably assumed that under work pressure, my colleague at the teller would check the form and accept it, but wouldn’t ask for the money! Similarly, another person wrote 4500 in the form, but actually offered to deposit 2000. He too thought the man at the teller was too busy to bother about this.

We needed to keep a hawk-eye on every transaction to catch such people. After every hour, we were taking a five-minute break to tally the transactions. At the first stage, we were getting all the details of the customer in terms of Aadhaar card, PAN card, address, the amount of money to be deposited, etc., and taking notes of all. Only after that, a transaction could take place. In the five-minute break after every one hour, we were checking how much money was deposited and whether the amounted tallied with the data sheet that we were creating.

On the pavement directly opposite the branch one day I saw one gentleman distributing old 1000 and 500 notes to at least a dozen people. After taking the money from him, those people were rushing to join the queue outside the bank branch. I called my colleague Varun out and decided to confront that man.

He claimed to be a contractor who was giving salary to his workers and immediately left the spot. We found that each of them was given 4500 worth of old notes to exchange for new notes. On that day, the limit for currency exchange had been raised from 4000 to 4500, and the limit for drawing money from ATM had also been lifted from 2000 to 2500. Apparently, the man was doing this every day outside different bank branches across Mumbai. We politely told those people to leave the place.

We also put in place a system whereby I could keep a tab in real time on how much money is being withdrawn from the ATM at my branch. Before I settled down and had my first glass of water one day, I found a series of withdrawals in quick succession, with a gap of less than thirty seconds, of 2400 each. There must be something wrong! I stepped out of my cabin and went into the ATM kiosk.

There were about twenty people standing in a queue outside the kiosk. I found a man inside with at least twenty-five debit cards and a piece of paper with passwords of those cards written on it. He claimed that all these cards belonged to his colleagues and he was withdrawing money on their behalf. The amount for each transaction was 2400 so that he could get at least four 100 notes. I had to throw him out of the kiosk.

A Car Full of Money

Another day, a man walked in with a suitcase carrying 8.5 million. He was a customer of our bank, but not our branch. I decided to connect him with the Vadodara branch manager where he claimed to have his account. I don’t know what they discussed over the phone, but I found him leaving my branch with his suitcase after talking to my counterpart.

Another man one day came in his Toyota Innova, full of money. He came to the bank carrying 50 million worth of old notes in one bag. There were thirteen such bags inside the car, he told us. His offer was quite straightforward—50 per cent of new notes in exchange of old notes. We could not believe what he was saying, and we looked at each other for a few seconds, and then asked him to leave the branch or else we would call the police.

I also remember an occasion when a travel agent dropped by with eighty passports and other documents to complete the KYC formalities and open new accounts. We said no to him.

Since we don’t have a currency chest of our own, our internal guidelines allowed us to keep 1.4 million in the bank vault overnight. Every day, we needed to transfer the extra cash that was being generated through deposits of old notes to another bank which has a currency chest. It’s merely 200 metres away. But under our bank’s rule, we could not walk up to that bank’s branch carrying money. Each day, we had to take a taxi and make several trips, as without an armed security guard we are not allowed to carry more than 900,000 in one trip. Two of my colleagues needed to carry the cash each time.

On the first day, 10 November, we closed the branch at 11.45 p.m. By the time I reached Dadar station, the 12.41 a.m. Virar local had left. I came back to the branch, slept for a couple of hours sitting on my chair before taking the 4.36 a.m. train. At home, I took a bath, had breakfast and left for work at 6.30 a.m. This was not a oneoff. There were many days in the past two months when I missed the last train and returned to office at midnight to catch some sleep. Many of us spent our Sundays too in the branch as on weekdays we could do nothing but handle the cash; there was no time to do other routine work such as maintenance of records and, of course, sanction and disbursement of loans.

Many a time the customers got agitated, but we could not afford to lose our cool. Most of them supported demonetization, but for some reasons they did not have much sympathy for us. They thought the move is good for the country to flush out black money, and banks had the money, but were not giving them. It was very tough to convince them that our hands were tied—there weren’t enough new notes to please all. The continuous changes in the regulator’s directives also complicated our job. Literally, each time I was going to the toilet, I used to ask my colleagues to keep a tab on whether there’s any change in the RBI rules. And once it actually happened.

The toughest part of the entire exercise was to keep the morale of my colleagues high. Two of my women colleagues also used to stay late every day. There were occasions when they could not take it any more. One of my male colleagues cried; another wanted to quit the job. I always told them to look at this as an opportunity to learn, to excel at our job. We needed to support the country in its fight against black money.

There were days when we couldn’t have a proper meal. I lost 10 kg in these two months; got a few strands of grey hair. I also quit smoking, something I had been trying to do ever since my daughter was born. In those fifty days, there was no time to step out of the bank branch for a smoke. My wife is happy. At Matheran, my daughter did not leave me alone for a moment.

Excerpted from From Lehman to Demonetization (Rs599, pp 376) by Tamal Bandyopadhyay, with permission from Penguin Random House India.

Tamal Bandyopadhyay, consulting editor at Mint, is adviser to Bandhan Bank. He is also the author of A Bank for the Buck, Sahara: The Untold Story and Bandhan: The Making of a Bank.

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

Close