Mumbai: At 12:30 am on Tuesday, an informal WhatsApp group of employees of a Punjab and Maharashtra bank’s South Mumbai branch was abuzz with the news about the bank’s sudden shutdown. While some thought it was a rumour, others started making late-night calls to their bank manager.
Ratnamala, a cashier at the branch, said that they were informed to “stay calm and come to work” on Tuesday. “We have tough days ahead of us,” she said.
By morning, the situation was clear. The Reserve Bank of India on Tuesday announced a set of sudden restrictions on the bank, barring routine business transactions for the next six months.
At 9 am, even before the bank’s work had started, several account holders had queued up, waiting to find ways to withdraw their savings.
Altaf Shaikh, a 26-year-old scrap dealer in Carnac Bunder road in South Mumbai, was among the first to reach the bank. He was at the bank till 7 pm, trying to reason with the bank officials and seeking their help.
“My wife is in hospital and our first child’s delivery is imminent. We have four accounts in this bank and we have been informed that we cannot withdraw more than Rs 1,000 per account. This is shocking,” Shaikh told The Wire.
But bank officials said they were just as helpless. “If we were aware of this development, we could have been better prepared. This is the second time we are feeling so helpless and the first time was when demonetisation was announced,” a banker said.
While the RBI has claimed that the restriction would apply for six months, the bank employees said they are uncertain about their jobs and salaries. “We have been asked to continue working. Although the account holders can’t access their account, they will still continue to banking with us. But we will be handling all this without any certainty of our jobs,” said M. Deshmukh, a cashier at the bank’s head office in Bhandup in eastern Mumbai.
In most branches, rumours and speculation flew. Public notices were stuck outside every bank, assuring account holders that they should not panic and should cooperate with the bank at the time of “distress”. The notice, signed by the bank’s managing director Joy Thomas, read:
“As the MD of the Bank, I take full responsibility and assure all the depositors that these irregularities will be rectified before the expiry of six months.”
This message, however, did little to diffuse the tense atmosphere at the banks. Most account holders, apart from being concerned about their savings, also expressed a sense of betrayal.
Asha Gomathi, a retired college professor, has been banking with the PMC for over a decade. “Why would they keep us in the dark all along. This is a scam,” she alleged. Gomathi’s account has over Rs 25 lakh, which she says would help her support post-retirement.
Fearing that the situation would slip out of their hands, most bank officials sought police security and heavy deployment was observed outside every branch.
For the next six months, the RBI has put the bank under a strict restriction, imposing an upper cap of Rs 1,000 per withdrawal from its accounts. In addition, the co-operative bank is also barred from granting new loans and accepting fresh bank deposits. In short, no new transaction besides withdrawal is permitted presently.
The 25-year-old co-operative bank was established in Mumbai and most of its 137 branches are in Mumbai suburbs.