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Hop Through Hoops to Close an Account in an Indian Bank

Mama waits patiently in the SBI lobby and then leaves finally after the account is closed

Mama waits patiently in the SBI lobby and then leaves finally after the account is closed

By Jawahar Malhotra

NEW DELHI: My father never trusted Indian banks or in putting his money in just one of them because the government banks were so difficult to deal with. So papaji opened up accounts in the banks within walking distance of our house in Rajouri Garden in West Delhi – all seven of them – when they first opened! He had account number 98 in in one of them and 128 in another! In late retirement, in his 80s, it was a game of chess for him checking his investments all day when he shuttled between one bank and another! I think it was also his way to leave the house and feel connected to a network of other people!

Papaji had a good memory and a quick mind for numbers and often looked for better fixed deposit rates and better opportunities to invest, but he also kept a keen eye on the passbooks as banks were prone to making accounting errors, especially in the era before computers. By the time he passed away in 2003 at the age of 83, he had done remarkably well, but his portfolios in all the banks were hard to untangle.

Virendra Kalra, Sr. Manager of Canara Bank in Rajouri Garden

Virendra Kalra, Sr. Manager of Canara Bank in Rajouri Garden

Three weeks ago, mama and I finally closed out accounts in two banks and the differences in the process and the attitude and attention of the bank staff were startling. They just don’t make managers anymore like Virendra Kalra at the Canara Bank. Though bound to a wheelchair (with polio afflicted problems as a young boy, I guessed) and with limited use of his hands, he sits bespectacled and smiling at his desk for 8 hours a day and has total recall of his customers who crowd his small cubicle for his personal attention because they know he can deliver. He remembers mama and me from over the years and quickly went through the request for closure and had our draft ready in a day.

The State Bank of India on Najafgarh Road near the Rajouri Garden Metro Station was another story altogether. For them, the KYC – Know Your Customer program implemented for the RBI a few years ago – is just another form, it does not mean “build a relationship of trust and confidence with your customer”. Seldom have I come across a bank I so despise for the surliness of the customer service reps.

The documents being handled in State Bank of India

The documents being handled in State Bank of India

The assistant manager asked for a handwritten application from mama to close the account, her proof of residency through an electric or gas utility bill, a copy of mama’s PAN card, a signed photo and for her to be there in person. When I told him we lived 18 kms away and that she was 88 years old and a little infirm on her feet, he shook his head and said “Those are the rules. She has to come. Koyi baat nahin (no problem), I can walk to the parking area to the car she comes in”! Then he told me the account could only be closed in the branch she opened it in. In this day of computerization, that didn’t make much sense at all.

On my third trip (and after spending Rs 800 ($12) in Ola cabs), when I took her with me and mama carefully walked through the doors, the service manager came to her to ask her name, make sure it was really her and if she wanted to close the account. Several counter notations and signatures from three separate bank people later – each step which I shepherded along – mama received her cash, minus Rs 575 ($9) closure fee (which Canara Bank, on the other hand, did not levy) with nary a word of regret at the closure or parting good bye from the portly, middle –aged bank rep who didn’t even look up when we took the cash.

The SBI just implemented fees for all sorts of activities that most people would have to do to maintain an account, like Rs 50 for account balances and passbook entries, etc. It is the second largest bank in India and has just announced that it will merge 5 of its sister banks and lay off or give early retirement to hundreds of employees. About time too! Having dealt with them for years, I found them to be bloated with bureaucratic red tape, not customer friendly and badly operated.

But then, that is true of every government operated bank in India that I have had to deal with! Too bad most of them don’t have managers like Mr. Kalra!

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