Banks sabotaging PM’s Jan Dhan dream

Ever since the Jan Dhan Yojana was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with great enthusiasm in 2014, I have had to move mountains to get my domestic staff and various people who were incapable of opening an account on their own to open accounts under the scheme. Most of these hapless applicants have been turned away from the gates by rude and threatening guards who are the banks’ first line of defence.

I first tried sending my staff to various branches of ICICI Bank as this is where we have our corporate accounts. In all of the branches they were brusquely sent packing with lame excuses such as lack of proper ID, existence of a previous bank account even though it was in the applicant’s village and inactive for many years, and most frequently, instructions from HQ to stop opening Jan Dhan accounts for the time being. Strangely, we had never had any problem opening salary accounts for any of our domestic staff or grade IV office staff even though they had salaries below 10000 rupees and they all maintained zero balance accounts.

When the Prime Minister announced from the ramparts of Red Fort in 2015 that over 20,000 crore rupees had been deposited in accounts under the Jan Dhan Yojana, and 17 crore people had already opened accounts, I decided there was no way all these people had all the documentation required and excellent persuasion skills so there was no reason for my staff, who had never operated bank accounts, to be excluded from the benefits.

I first instructed many of my staff to go soon after the speech with relevant documents such as Adhaar card or voter Id and pan card, first to ICICI bank in Chattarpur and when they were again turned away, to private and even public banks in our neighbourhood. Everywhere they were given the same excuse, Jan Dhan drive was temporarily on hold. The guard did not even let them enter the premises.

I then decided to accompany them personally. In one bank I shouted at the guard when he heard we had come to open Jan Dhan accounts and barred our way. There we were told to download forms online. When we went to ICICI bank the guard had downed the shutters on a Saturday afternoon and refused to let us enter. After much threats and cajoling when we finally entered we were told that Jan dhan accounts were no longer being opened by ICICI bank. When I asked to speak to the manager, he was incommunicado.

I then went to Punjab Bank. Same story. Forms for Jan Dhan account were not available, nor was the executive in charge of opening such accounts. Ditto for HDFC and Syndicate bank, again they had ‘valid’ reasons for not allowing my staff to open the accounts. I then spoke to my relationship manager and she first mentioned that it was corporate policy not to accept further Jan Dhan applications but when I threatened to publish this in my paper, she arranged an interview with the manager of Chattarpur ICICI bank. When we went to meet him again on a Monday he refused to do so claiming work overload, and after threats of complaints to the finance ministry and a front page report in our paper, a staff member reluctantly agreed to fill out the forms. Once he examined my staff’s documents,  both of them ladies, for one lady he immediately rejected her Adhaar card as it had only her first name and said it was not a reliable ID proof, Voter ID was more acceptable. 

On presenting her pan card he threw that on the table saying the document looked suspicious as it did not resemble any pan card he had seen (it was the new type of card with a chip in it) and also it had her husband’s name on it instead of her father”s name. For the second lady, Gulab Khujur, he refused to accept her Voter ID after pointing out several errors such as it not mentioning her date of birth, only her age. When she innocently mentioned that she was currently living with me and not at the address mentioned on the voter card he again threw a fit and refused to oblige her any further. 

Though she pleaded that various family members would receive the bank kit on her behalf at the address mentioned he was adamant that she get proof mentioning her current residence. When I barged into the manager’s office and asked him to give me in writing why he would not accept their applications, he started to give me a convoluted explanation of why the cards in themselves were not sufficient  and gave a long list of requirements for opening such bank accounts such as tenancy agreement etc. When I asked him to give it to me in writing, he refused.

I informed him that not only would I be writing a letter to the senior management but also to the finance ministry informing them of his extremely unethical practices.

That seemed to have some effect as a staff member came to my residence later apologizing and asking me to write a letter saying my staff was residing with me and he also checked she was present at home to ensure the veracity of her claims.  It looked like he was opening a bank account for some serious offender with hawala or terrorist connections. It was 22nd Feb and he mentioned that both the ladies accounts would be opened within a few days as I wished to deposit their salaries in their accounts in the first week of March. But this was just the beginning.

For almost a month we kept asking when the account would be active and kept getting fobbed off. Either my staff were not allowed to enter the bank to enquire and asked to contact customer care, or either the manager or executive who had filled in the forms were not available to meet us, or they were unable to give us any firm details over the phone either at the bank or at the call centre. They also kept claiming that we were bothering them needlessly as the bank kits were dispatched from HQ and they had no role to play. Finally, I wrote to Chandra Kochar, managing director of ICICI Bank and she asked senior management to get in touch with me. But he seemed equally inept or helpless. He only kept saying he was investigating the matter.

Meanwhile bank staff harassed my staff further, interrogating them as to whether they really stayed at the address mentioned on their ID proof, what was the nature of their employment, why they needed a Jan Dhan account specifically, and as they were unable to ‘verify’ the ladies documents personally, they would like to meet me at my home and have a chat with me in this regard! Later, they claimed the courier could not find the address though a guard is on duty at the gate 24x7 and all ICICI Bank correspondence had been couriered to my address without any problems in the past. I refused to meet them for any further chats as I didn’t see how my chatting with them would expedite things. They then dropped subtle hints that I should open an account and deposit money with the bank, with the implication that this might smooth the way for my staff’s Jan Dhan odyssey. I agreed and surprisingly, I was presented my entire bank kit in the bank premises within minutes of my giving them the green light!

The bank then claimed they were trying to ‘verify’ applicants’ details on phone but my staff claimed they had received any calls from the bank though their phones were switched on 24x7. Finally, the courier was able to locate my address by some  miracle and delivered one bank kit without the atm card or pin. This belonged to a hardworking girl from Jharkhand, Gulab Kujur, who was very keen to open a bank account as her hard-earned savings had often gone missing from her hiding place.  The other application was still on hold as her details could not be verified, and after the kit did arrive many months later, again it was incomplete.

When I informed the bank that Gulab Kujur had not received her card or pin or chequebook, I was told they would be arriving in separate kits. By end March Gulab was still unable to operate her account as she had finally received her ATM card after calls to Mumbai but not the pin, and we could not generate a pin through the ATM machine or the call centre as her phone number had not been updated in the bank’s system in spite of numerous requests, and though we had insisted her phone number be put on her application form. Again, they said it was HQ creating the problem, not the branch. After several angry letters to senior management Gulab was called to the bank and within minutes her number was updated in minutes and a pin generated. I was also finally informed that ICICI did not provide chequebooks for Jan Dhan account holders.

Anyone with less determination than me would have given up long back. But I decided to take things to its logical conclusion and asked them to help Gulab join the PM’s insurance scheme for Jan Dhan account holders. They claimed ignorance of how to go about it. After numerous visits and requests when they promised to SMS me the details there was no progress. Finally I had to take the mobile phone of one staff member from his hand after he admitted he had the details saved in it and copied out the details to be SMSed from Gulab’s phone. Again, when a couple of months later I took Gulab to enroll her in the PM’s Atal Pension scheme, the staff feigned ignorance and promised to send me the details soon but till date no details have been received and she has given in frustration. 

But it seems the saga of harassment was not yet over. Gulab’s account was suddenly deactivated a month back without any warning. It was only when her salary could not be transferred that she visited the bank, and she was told her documentation was ‘incomplete’ and she would have to submit her documents all over again. This she did promptly  and on a repeat visit she was again asked to resubmit her documents in the space of a few days. On her fourth visit she was finally given the privilege of using her account again with no explanation whatsoever as to what the problem had been.

To add insult to injury, Gulab discovered to her horror that 1799 rupees had been deducted from her account on 30th August, with no intimation whatsoever, and after getting no help from customer care she begged me for help as it was a significant amount for her. When we went to the bank armed with her passbook, an extremely rude executive kept insisting she had withdrawn the money and showing her ‘proof’ by mentioning old transactions, though we kept asking him to explain what the Rs 1799 transaction was for, he vaguely said if she had proof she had not withdrawn the money or authorized the transaction she should call customer care, it was not his job. When I started shouting it was time to write some more letters, senior bank executives got involved, and after admitting the money was deducted by their Mumbai office for a an insurance scheme or ‘protection plan’ after getting Gulab’s authorization on phone (which Gulab strongly denied), a very stern interrogation followed and she was asked to prove that she had not left her phone with friends or family members and they had not authorized it on her behalf. Gulab said she had already subscribed to both the PM’s insurance schemes and had no intention of wasting any more money on insurance. 

When I said the burden of proof was on the bank as the bank did not send an sms or provide Jan Dhan account holders enough benefits to utilize money from their account for fraudulent schemes simply on the basis of a disputed phone call, they called their Mumbai office and the sales executive and bank staff claimed there was no way the money could now be reversed. But when I said I wanted to hear the voice recording of the phone transaction and would also check Gulab’s phone records to see if she had received any such call from ICICI on the day mentioned they suddenly backtracked and said the money would be reversed within six days. We are still waiting for the money to arrive.

Would a regular Jan Dhan applicant have had the gumption to persist in opening an account or trying to recover money deducted without their knowledge in the face of intimidation and indifference by bank staff unless they had someone who could plead their case at the highest levels or threaten the bank with exposure? If this can happen in the capital, Delhi, what protection do poor people in rural areas have where one hears reports that they are often asked for bribes to open their accounts, and also charged each time they deposit or withdraw money. Gulab is now so afraid of her money being siphoned off by unscrupulous bank staff through various schemes that she has decided to withdraw her entire savings and keep it under her mattress!

Gulab is not the only one who has had to bear the brunt of the bank’s wrath for daring to insist on opening a Jan Dhan account after the bank categorically telling them it was not feasible. Several of my other staff have had to face a wall of obfuscations and procrastinations and continuous overt and covert harassment if they insisted on opening a Jan Dhan account, such as being repeatedly being told to return or asked for different ID proof as each card they submit seems to have some lacunae. 

Though they only accepted the applications every time only after I intervened, they have been repeatedly questioned my staff on what was my ‘motivation’ in bringing so many of my staff to specifically open Jan Dhan accounts and whether or not they were actually in my employ. They seemed very surprised that my only concern was that my staff should enjoy the benefits of pension and insurance schemes available to Jan Dhan holders. At no point did they ever try to educate my staff of their own volition of the benefits of their ATM card or various benefits available to them, such as overdraft, etc, and each time I tried to get my staff enrolled in the pension or insurance schemes, 

I was fobbed off with vague excuses of their inability or ignorance in the matter. I am convinced that it is not only the low returns from Jan Dhan accounts, which often have zero balances or very limited savings, which is causing banks to put a lid on Jan Dhan accounts, but also the costs and hassle involved in administering the various Jan Dhan linked schemes offered by the Prime Minister. 

Because banks have no hesitation in opening ordinary salary accounts for our staff on the spot, for which they are even willing to come to our homes to complete all the formalities, even though these salary accounts often also have a zero balance, as the entire salary is withdrawn immediately.

Gulab Kujur, who is a hard-working, honest girl from Jharkhand who believes in saving half of her meager salary each month, also told me earlier that Jan Dhan account holders were not allowed to keep more than Rs 50000 in their account, so when she reached that limit she would have to open another account to keep the rest of her savings! There are many such rules casually thrown out for Jan dhan account holders. They are not given chequebooks so they cannot open an account in another bank, as that requires a check to be deposited with the application. Nor can they put any money in a fixed deposit linked to their Jan dhan account. If the intention is financial inclusivity why are these people not encouraged to deposit savings in Jan Dhan accounts in legitimate ways, so that they are not pushed into the arms of chit fund agents, or give their hard-earned money to neighbourhood committees or private moneylenders who can easily defraud them?

If the government made it known that only an Adhaar card is needed to open a Jan Dhan account and all employers must deposit the salaries of domestic staff and payments to the unorganized sector in Jan Dhan accounts, it would go a long way in easing the difficulties and encouraging banks to accept such account holders, as these would be seen as similar to salary accounts with a fixed amount coming in each month. 

Also, banks should not be allowed the benefit of deducting money for any purpose other than schemes offered by the Prime Minister from any Jan Dhan account as such account holders are not even provided a chequebook, and losing their hard-earned money by the banks’ trickery might force many account holders to withdraw all their savings. As many account holders cannot read or write, the bank should educate people on how to use an ATM machine for withdrawing money and checking their balance regularly so they do not remain ignorant of any transaction in their account as the bank does not even bother to send them an sms alert for the same. Guards should never be allowed to chase away applicants based solely on their appearance, lack of education or resources, or ability to speak fluently, as long as they have valid ID proof.
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