Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Banks play pranks

There hasn't been too much April foolery in the dailies this morning. Maybe it's because history has played enough jokes on us these past fifteen months. Imagine somebody predicting two years ago: as oil prices rise, more grain will be converted to fuel, sparking food riots in a dozen countries. Oil will rise to nearly 150 dollars a barrel and then collapse under $40. Hundred year-old financial institutions will go bankrupt. An island with one of the highest living standards in the world will need an IMF bailout. The US will nationalise or part-nationalise its banking and insurance sectors. The American President will sack the head of General Motors. The world's economy will shrink for the first time in sixty years.
What could a newspaper print to top all this?
I did feel like the butt of an April Fool's prank this morning. I went to town to buy an air ticket which had to be paid for in cash. My bank, HDFC, has a branch on Marine drive, right next to the airline's office. I popped in there, to be told the machine was out of order. Can I cash a cheque, then? Sorry, we're on financial year-end accounts duty, the branch is shut for customers. No problem, I thought, there are plenty of ATMs in the area. I trudged around Churchgate in 40 degree heat and couldn't find a single machine that would spit out the required currency notes. The Reserve Bank's mandate that all ATMs should be free-to-use starting today had obviously thrown a spanner in the works.
I don't know why the RBI took this decision. It's true that charges for customers of one bank who used the ATM of another were not transparent. But eliminating cross-bank usage fees will disincentivize the expansion of ATM networks. Banks might spin off most of their machines into separate companies which charge everybody equally.
I ended up at another HDFC branch, where the ATM was working, but in an ungenerous mood. It kept asking me to enter a smaller amount, and finally deigned to provide 5000 rupees, well short of what I needed. When I prodded it again, I was told I'd fulfilled my day's quota. I went into one of those mindless repitition exercises, feeling like Oliver Twist asking for more soup. It was all in vain, and I'm back home now without the air ticket, feeling I've been punk'd.

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