Will the Epitaph of Public Sector Banks Have Room for Hari's Smile?

The failings of the public sector notwithstanding, the difference these banks make to even a few ordinary lives can never be under-valued even as the cry for privatisation gets shriller.

Many, many years ago, while training as an officer with a public sector bank, I found myself for two months in a village in Rajasthan’s desert district of Barmer.  I happened to strike an unlikely friendship with Hari, a local boy, about 18 or 19 years old. Unlikely, because he neither spoke nor even understood Hindi, never went to a school, and was very shy. He had helped me with my bags the day I reached the village and took up quarters in a set of rooms above the branch I was to work in.

Every morning, when I walked to a tiny tea stall in the village marketplace, I would see Hari hanging around and sometimes asked him over for a cup of tea. That he was a Dalit was plain to see, because while most customers would sit at a long table and drank from glasses, Hari was expected to sip his tea from an earthen cup standing outside the stall. We communicated through a curious mix of broken Hindi, a variant of Marwari. The sign language and help from the tea-seller who spoke some Hindi did not mind being my interpreter, and after some days, he kindly put out a stool outside the stall for me to sit on as I talked with Hari and drank my tea. The market was where I had to ‘order’ the bread and the newspaper that would come from Balotra, a town some 40 kilometres away, through a friendly bus driver who would deliver the newspaper two days too late and the bread not quite fresh from the oven but still edible.

Hari’s family was desperately poor. His father was a landless farmer whose only possessions were a squalid hovel, some pots and pans and a family of four. The tea-seller told me they had not always been so poor, though, and owned some land to grow bajra and jeera (cumin), and had even given off their eldest daughter in a decent marriage to a man who ran a small grocery store in nearby Mokalsar. Presumably, Hari’s father had run up a large debt and had to sell everything off to settle his liabilities. He now tried to keep the wolf from the door by doing sundry seasonal jobs and Hari pitched in by loading/unloading sacks of grain and cumin at a local trader’s warehouse. Hari was strongly built, was very dark and had gleaming white teeth. He had a beautiful smile and smiled often.

Those were the years when many anti-poverty programmes were being sponsored by the government. Garibi Hatao (Indira Gandhi’’s slogan of ‘Abolish Poverty’) had not run out of steam fully yet, nor had Janardhan Poojary, Union minister of state for finance for many years yet managed to transform the government’s initiative into the absurd ritual of Loan Melas. This is not to mean that the programmes were being executed properly or cleanly. Far from it, indeed. But they had not yet been reduced to a caricature of themselves.

Of the three or four officers our branch had, one Mr Singh was a graduate in agricultural science from a university in Bihar. As the technical officer (agriculture), he was responsible for assessing all loan proposals under the sponsored schemes. He had lived in that village for over two years by then, spoke Marwari perfectly, knew the entire local government machinery like the back of his hand, and had a heart of gold. I asked him if there was something we could do for Hari’s father, and he said we might. So, one morning on my way to office, I got hold of Hari and brought him to the bank, which he entered with hesitation. Singh soon put him at ease, however, and told him that there were several ways the bank could try and help his father under the differential interest rates loan scheme. Being landless, they could perhaps profit by a pair of bullocks that would enable them to cart foodgrain or cumin to the mandi towns nearby. If Hari’s father could think of some other profitable way of making use of a small bank loan, we would be happy to consider that as well. So would he have his father come to the branch one of these days and talk it out? As Hari left the bank and set off for home, there was a spring to his step, and his smile spread from ear to ear.

Villagers, by and large, are still wary about the benefits the banking system can bring to them. Credit: Business Call to Action

Strangely, neither Hari’s father nor the boy turned up the next day, or the one following it. I saw Hari at the market, too, but he seemed to avoid my eyes. I let him be the first time, but when he looked away the second time, I passed him by also. I knew something was the matter with him. I asked the tea-seller if he knew where Hari lived. He was surprised, but gave me the general idea. At the branch, I told Singh what had happened. He was equally perplexed, and thought we could find out what had gone wrong if only he spoke with Hari’s father. The same afternoon, during the lunch recess, he took the branch daftary (peon) with him and went in search of the reluctant borrower. It was much later that I realised that what Singh did that day was truly exceptional.

When he came back to the branch an hour or so later, Singh had a grim look. He told me an extraordinary story. As someone who had lived all his years in cities and towns and had picked up what little he knew about India’s villages from books and newspapers alone, I was completely unprepared for what Singh told me.

Some years ago, there had been a flash flood in Barmer district. It had rained incessantly for three days. The river Luni, dry for many years, was in full spate and there was serious damage to the standing crop, to livestock and even to dwellings along the river’s sides. For a desert district, this was an unprecedented disaster. Government relief was announced, and Hari’s father also got a princely sum of Rs 700. The village took time to pick up the threads but, as always happens in rural India, things got back to the old dreary routine by and by. Hari’s parents started planning for their second daughter’s wedding. A portion of the land they owned would go towards meeting the expenses.

The following year, the tehsildar (district administrator) came knocking on their door, though. He had come to collect payments for the interest and principal of the loan that Hari’s father had taken. The family was stunned. It did not help when the tehsildar pointed out that Hari’s father had collected ex gratia relief of Rs 500 as well as a rehabilitation loan of RS 3,000, repayable in five years and attracting a ‘nominal’ interest rate of 8%, and that the government held stamped acknowledgements bearing the father’s thumb-prints. The family pleaded and begged for mercy, but there was nothing the tehsildar could do. It was, after all, government money and however hard he tried, he was not competent to waive the loan.

After the kind tehsildar left, promising to come back soon, Hari’s father found out that some nine or ten of his neighbours had similarly ‘benefited’ from the state’s munificence. Only none of them had known about it till then. They made bold to go in a group to the sarpanch (village head), asking him to intercede for them. His Eminence shooed them away, however. He was a prosperous Rajput trader. The flock that had come seeking his help was, of course, entirely Dalit.

Hari’s family was devastated. His father neglected tending to his tiny plot of land. His daughter’s wedding plans were soon forgotten. His wife wept endlessly. Hari was too young yet to take in the enormity of what had hit them.

To cut a long story short, Hari’s father soon sold off his land and the cow they possessed and settled his ‘debt’ to the government. The tehsildar was indeed kind. He arranged with the sarpanch to find a buyer. Hari’s sister’s marriage was not discussed again. But his father took a vow that fateful day: he would never again have anything to do with the government.

Singh told me that the man had pleaded with him with folded hands to leave him alone. Singh was another representative of the government, and he would kill himself rather than accept Singh’s help. So, Singh had to give up.

It was then that our branch manager entered the picture. He was a Rajput himself, from eastern Rajasthan, but his father had converted to Christianity and their social mores were quite different from others’. Somewhat aloof, he seemed galvanised into action by Singh’s story. He roped in the block development officer (BDO), a young man who had taken up his duties only recently, strode over to Hari’s house the next day, and dragged his father to the branch, speaking to him reassuringly all the while. The fact that he was a native speaker of Marwari must have helped. Things moved fast. A loan got approved; the documents were drawn up; the branch manager sent for Hari’s brother-in-law in Mokalsar who had attended school and could read and write, and explained the entire transaction to him; the son-in-law persuaded Hari’s father that it was indeed a commercial transaction, not relief for which the state could clutch at his throat again. The BDO helped the family buy a sturdy pair of bullocks and a cart. In four or five days, the process got over.

The following Sunday, we all trooped to Hari’s place. The whole branch had been invited for lunch, as was the BDO. Only our head cashier, a devout Brahmin, excused himself. It was as ample a meal as the family’s meagre means would allow. We all sat in a row on the verandah and ate from plates made from tree leaves. There was much laughter, but Hari’s father sat almost in a daze in front of his guests. My eyes, however, kept going back to Hari, who pottered about, his face lit up with the smile that I had come to associate with him from the first day.

A great many years later, I was invited to a management institute by its batch of graduating students. They had arranged for some kind of a debate around the theme “Are private sector banks better or public sector banks?” The private sector, represented by a very senior, and very articulate, officer from one of the topmost banks based in Mumbai made its case very well, quoting numbers, reports and weighty opinions. Speaking after him, I simply narrated the incident I recounted above, adding that Hari’s smile had often enough helped relieve my gloom when things seemed to be not going well for me. I said that a couple of attractive job offers had come my way from new-generation private banks who were aggressively recruiting in the mid-1990s and I would be less than honest to claim that I had not wavered. In the end, however, I decided to stay on where I was, and I did not regret that decision. And that, if I were to begin again, I might still plump for a public sector bank, all the failings of the public sector notwithstanding, for the knowledge that I could make a difference to even a few ordinary lives was something I would not easily trade in for anything else. Somehow, the students voted that the public sector had won the day, and the very gracious gentleman from the private bank shook my hand warmly, saying that I had spoken ‘very well’. He did not tell me, though, if he thought there was anything in what I had said.

Much water has flown under the bridge since the day I was first confronted with the realities of the ‘other India’ I had not known. The public sector lies in a shambles; calls for wholesale privatisation are growing shriller by the day; (former NITI Aayog head) Arvind Panagariya seems to suggest that even the debate around private versus public was never relevant. Will even the epitaph for public sector banks not have room for the toothy smile on Hari’s  swarthy face, then?

Anjan Basu freelances as literary critic, translator and commentator. “As Day is Breaking” is his book of translations from the work of the noted Bengali poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay. He worked for one of India’s largest commercial banks for over three decades, both inside the country and outside it.

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