Mumbai: At around 7.45pm on 8 November, B.P. Mahapatra got a frantic call from his wife. News channels, she told him, were running a ticker tape that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would address the nation at 8pm.
“She was apprehensive that there was some war announcement between India and Pakistan. She asked me to quickly come back home, no matter where I was,” Mahapatra said.
Of course, the message turned out to be even scarier for a banker. As the head of Punjab National Bank’s (PNB) Ilaco House branch in Mumbai’s Fort area, he quickly realized what this move meant for the bank employees working under him.
The government had decided to withdraw Rs500 and Rs1,000 notes and asked the public to deposit them in bank accounts. In his address, Modi also said that people would be allowed to exchange up to Rs4,000 worth of old notes for valid currency.
For all this, bank branches were assigned as central locations. This meant, it was most likely that branches would see long queues and their resources would be under severe strain.
Quickly, Mahapatra called a meeting on the morning of 9 November to rally his team and prepare for the huge workload that would be coming up.
About six weeks later, on a Thursday evening at the Ilaco House branch, Mahapatra recounted the trials and tribulations of a banker managing the enormous disruption caused by the demonetisation.
A student of Ravenshaw Collegiate School at Cuttack—the same school that Subhas Chandra Bose went to—Mahapatra has a master’s degree in political science from Utkal University in Odisha.
During his time with PNB, he has served at Chhattisgarh, New Delhi, Kolkata, Visakhapatnam and Chennai before taking charge of the Mumbai branch in August.
“The PM said that branches would be shut on 9 November, so we had a day to prepare for the whole thing. I got a call from the Mumbai circle head and some other senior officials telling me that my branch should do whatever it takes to ensure good service to our customers to the best of our capacity,” Mahapatra said.
The Ilaco House branch staff met at about 11am on 9 November and after an initial round of discussions about the move and the expected impact, they got to making crucial decisions on how to manage the crowds.
Mahapatra had taken charge only recently, so it was not easy for him to assign duties right away. He turned to his staff and asked them to volunteer for various duties.
First, he needed people who were skilled in punching information onto Excel sheets. This was because people were allowed to come and exchange old currency notes at bank branches even though they were not customers of the bank, provided they submitted identity proof. To ensure the branch had a clear account of old currency notes coming in, valid currency notes going out and accurately collected identity data, it was essential somebody with speed and accuracy be in charge.
“After this, I asked for people to volunteer for counting and sorting Rs100, Rs50, Rs20 and Rs10 notes and create bundles worth Rs4,000, so that whenever someone came in to exchange, we could just hand them the bundle after checking their credentials and the process would move quickly,” Mahapatra said.
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The rest of the staff helped in maintaining the lines, checking copies against original identity documents and helping customers deal with other banking needs during the days following the demonetisation announcement. As the exchange services included people other than customers of the bank, the Ilaco House branch made separate desks to service them. The bank’s own customers were allowed to walk in when they wished and get other bank services at will.
Essentially a corporate lending outlet, the Ilaco House branch is allowed to maintain a higher portion of cash than a retail branch. The branch decided to hold up to Rs50 lakh of cash at the end of each day, regularly sending back old currency notes to its currency chest in Worli and collecting new notes in a private vehicle rather than depend on cash transit vehicles, which are a third-party service.
Mahapatra made it a point to be at the counters himself in the first two hours when the branch opened and the last hour or so of branch closing, ensuring the processes he had set up were being followed. After a few days, he could breathe easy.
The branch opened at about 10.30am every morning, and the staff would not leave till about 9 or 10pm.
“Nobody complained, actually. Everyone enjoyed the work because they took it as a major responsibility that the government had given to them,” Mahapatra said.
A stress point, the branch figured, would be people trying to game the system to convert their illegally acquired cash into legitimate money through various means. The branch staff had to be alert about this, Mahapatra said.
“I told them very clearly that the scamsters and other mischievous persons would try their hand at using the branch during the first few days. Once their actions are stopped at the beginning, they wouldn’t dare come here again,” he said.
In one of the earlier days of demonetisation, the branch was visited by one of their poorer account holders. The man came in with about Rs7 lakh in old notes to deposit in his account, accompanied by a woman. As the branch officials questioned him about the large amount of money, the woman accompanying him stepped in to answer.
The officials directed them to Mahapatra’s office, where they were asked about the source of the funds. The woman said these were proceeds from a recent land deal and they were trying to deposit it.
“I asked them to submit a copy of the agreement along with the cash deposit. They said they would come back later with the papers. The following day, the account holder came with a man who was dressed very well. The man said that the cash was actually from a deal of some grains which grew on the account holder’s land and were not from a land deal. I asked them to submit a copy of the receipt they would have received from the mandi they sold the grains in,” Mahapatra said.
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As soon as he asked for the documents, Mahapatra was told off by the well-dressed man for asking too many details and was told that he should quietly just take the deposit.
“I told him very clearly that he could shout as much as he wanted to and could even misbehave with me, but I wouldn’t take the deposit till the relevant documents were produced. If such customers want to take their business away from our branch, then so be it. We are not concerned much,” he said.
While frequent changes in rules from the government and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) did not create any major problems while dealing with customers, the systems the branch was using to complete transactions took time to update, Mahapatra said. However, he added that with the help of understanding customers and a highly motivated staff, his branch managed to provide adequate services during the trying times.
Mahapatra sums up the whole ordeal as succinctly as a public sector banker could: “I am here to only implement the policy… not to judge anything.”