You will certainly agree with me that a bank branch in a rural area is highly vulnerable, particularly when the population of that village is dwindling and the area is secluded. Having agreed that, can you please tell me how that branch can provide protection to women folk and children of that village? Even if we accept that it can provide some comfort to that vulnerable section of the society, can we allow the branch to function in that place on the face of sharp decline in business and the dilapidated condition of the premises? I do not know your response but the story goes like this.
The name of the village is Lapanga, located in erstwhile Hazaribagh district. It is a village little different from others in the sense that it came up because of mining activities in Lapanga colliery. After almost 30 years, mining activity had to be abandoned as the underground deposits of coal got fully exhausted. Resultantly, the labourers as well as the employees had to be redeployed in another colliery located at a distance of about 20 KM away. They used to go to the work place in the morning and come back in late evening. However, over the period the number of households as well as people got reduced due to retirement of employees and consequent relocation of families.
When the mining was in full swing, State Bank of India (SBI) opened a branch thereat to cater to the banking needs of the colliery and its workers / employees. As the premises belonged to the Central Coalfields Ltd., its maintenance was also being done by them. The business of the branch was very good till the time the colliery was in operation but it started showing a declining trend with the closure of mining activity. By the time I went to visit the branch as Regional Manager, the business was less than half of the maximum level attained by it during its life time. No new account had been opened for more than three years. But apart from business what was really worrisome was that the building was absolutely shabby and dilapidated. There were a large number of herbs / plants on the roof top. The condition of the roof was such that it could collapse anytime and if it happened to be an office day, the possibility of a few casualties could not have been ruled out. In other words, the situation was so alarming that it warranted an immediate action.
Under the circumstances, the instant solution which came to my mind was the closure of the branch. The other option was obviously to shift it to a suitable location. As the branch was located in a rural area, as per RBI guidelines, it was not possible to close the branch. So the first option was simply ruled out. As far as the second option is concerned, the prevailing rule was that it could be shifted to any place within the service area of the existing branch. As it was an area surrounded by collieries, it was also not an easy task. However, it was decided, in principle, to shift the branch at the earliest and accordingly, the Branch Manager was advised to make all-out efforts to search for a suitable premises.
After almost a month, the BM told me, “Sir, I have explored every possibility to find a suitable building in the vicinity but in vain. It seems that we have to repair the existing premises on our own to avoid any mishap / accident.” I told to him to wait for a few days. Meanwhile, I told the official concerned to put an advertisement one each in a Hindi and an English Daily asking for proposals from prospective landlords / landladies. But we did not get even a single proposal. We were really in a dilemma and lost hopes but before finally closing that option, I thought it prudent to try myself by visiting the area. Accordingly, I along with two officers from Regional Office went to that area and after a thorough search, we could find only one building just on the border but within the service area of the village. The owner of the building was running a motorcycle showroom cum repairing shop therein. We approached him for the first floor (to be constructed) for shifting the branch. He agreed instantly but asked for exorbitant rent. After a lot of discussions / negotiations, we could make him accept rental at a reasonable rate.
After completing the required formalities in a week’s time, the landlord was given a go ahead and requested to complete the premises within the shortest possible time. As promised by him, it was ready within two months and we took possession of the same. After another month or so, the premises became fully ready for shifting of the branch.
As part of the process, the BM displayed a notice on the branch notice board advising the customers about the shifting of the branch from a prospective date. But that triggered a lot of resistances / chain reactions against shifting of the branch. BM informed me over telephone that some persons met him and told him that they would not allow shifting of the branch as it had been providing security to their family members during the day. They also told him that from next day onwards they would start relay hunger strike to resist any attempt of the Bank to shift the branch. I was at a loss as I failed to understand as to how a branch, a highly vulnerable entity, could provide security to another vulnerable section – ladies and children. Anyway, I told him, “Let us see how it fans out. We need to wait and watch.”
Next day around 11.00 a.m., again I got a call from the BM when he told me, “Sir, some persons are sitting on a mat under a tree and just in front of the branch. They are telling that they will continue the relay hunger strike (!) till they are getting an assurance from the Bank authorities that the branch will not be shifted.” I told him not to talk to them on that issue and to wait for a few days. I also told him not to talk on that subject even if someone asked him. The position remained constant for the next two days. But on the fourth day, I got a call from the BM around 11.30 a.m. From his voice, it was absolutely clear that he was very nervous. I asked him, “What’s the matter? Why are you so nervous? Please tell me what has happened without any fear. I am and will be with you to provide you total support.” With that assurance, he could open his mouth and told me, “In the morning, Officer-in-Charge (OC) of local police station came to the branch. He told me that he will arrest me if an old man sits for hunger strike and dies thereat.” I told him not to worry as nothing would happen like that.
I then called the Zonal Security Officer (ZSO) and told him about the incident. After that I requested him to visit the branch and also, to meet the OC and seek his co-operation for shifting the branch after explaining to him why it had been absolutely necessary to do that. The ZSO did accordingly and came back in the evening and briefed me that the OC not only promised total co-operation but also denied having said anything to the BM. (Though it was a fact that he threatened the BM but coming to know about our relationship with district administration, he changed the track.) Anyway, after getting the assurance, the BM geared up the process for shifting at the earliest.
It was second day after the visit of ZSO, as I had reached the Zonal Office, I got a call from an unknown number. I attended the call. The person at the other end introduced himself as a District level office bearer of a political party and told me, “The persons who sat for the relay hunger strike are ready to withdraw the strike as you have assured to run an extension centre from the existing premises (though no such assurance was given by me). Please, therefore, arrange to offer them some fruit juice to maintain their dignity.” I was completely taken aback but could understand that it was made possible due to the pressure generated by the police officer and I immediately agreed to his proposal. I added further that they would be offered not only fruit juice but also a decent lunch. He thanked me and disconnected the line.
Without wasting even a single moment, I rang up the BM and told him to hire 3 / 4 trucks and shift all the computers, gadgets, books, documents, etc. that day itself in one go. Accordingly, the work was completed and we could avoid an imminent disaster to happen. However, even today I failed to understand how a vulnerable entity can provide support to another vulnerable section of the society?
I joined SBI as a Probationary Officer in 1981. Since then, I have worked in various capacities as Branch Manager, Regional Manager and Deputy General Manager at different places. My specialised areas are Credit and General Banking.
I also was Chairperson of Reserve Bank of India Working Group on Evaluation of Feasibility of Aadhaar based Biometric Authentication as Additional factor of Authentication for card present transactions and related issues.
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