Monday, September 18, 2006

The Rise and Fall of the Whistling Bank

I first visited ICICI Bank in 1999 with my parents. The air conditioned office, plush chairs and polite and well groomed staff were such a pleasant change from the usual Indian government bank that I came out raving about the improving quality of service in Indian banking and how capitalism and commercial banking would revolutionize the Indian economy. 7 years later, I realise that my joy at age 16 would soon become the root of my personal disgust at age 23.
Let me expound:

I enter ICICI's N Block branch in South Delhi with my mother, feeling irritable at the prospect of going to a bank. I mean, hey, who goes to banks? It just aint cool! Hot waiting areas, paan stains on walls, the smells of Indian beurocracy and decaying documentation...ughhh. Who wants that???
But instead of that I find myself in a brightly lit, spotless and odorless room, with the cool air from the air conditioning doing wonders for my system overheated from Delhi's blistering summers.
A very businesslike looking young lady greets my mother and even shoots a smile my way. While mum transacts her business, I enjoy looking around what looks like a very illustrious business office. Flowers on tables, magazines in racks, water dispensers with clean paper cups stacked neatly. I could settle down here, I think.
Mum finishes and we leave. I decide my first account is going to be in ICICI. Then I hear that their minimum balance is a rather exorbitant figure. This doesnt bother me except for the fact that it just means I will have to wait a little longer to open myown account.

ICICI launches its Bank@Campus scheme, wherein neophyte engineering students can open an account for a minimum balance of a paltry Rs. 600. I am thrilled. I can actually have a bank account in ICICI. Yippee!!!!
I tool over to the Koramangala, Bangalore branch with my precious 600 and documents which prove that I am me. The idea of a personalised cheque book is making my hands itch already.
When I arrive at the bank after a long and hot bus journey on Bangalore's excuse for a public transport system, hoping for respite at the Mecca of banking, I am faced with a stern looking security guard who asks me what I want. I tell him I am here to submit my application for a banking account. He lets me through with a slightly doubtful look on his face. I enter the bank's main chamber and for the first time, I see a crowd in ICICI. However, all of the staff looks completely at ease. They are all smiling and politely trying to ensure a smooth flow of business.
I approach a rather capable looking young man in a starched shirt and shiny tie and ask him for directions to student form submissions. He tells me that they take student account particulars only on Tuesdays and Thursdays and today is neither so I will have to come back another day. I politely tell him that I live across town and since Koramangala is the only branch which offers student accounts, can they not please make an exception in this case. He is hesitating when an angelic looking middle aged lady walks up and asks what the problem is. He tells her and she says that even though they don't normally do it, they can make an exception in my case and they will accept the form now, but the processing will be done only after Thursday. I am overjoyed. I come out with my belief in ICICI re-inforced.

Panic!!! My debit card is lost. It is a few months after I have recieved a mailer from ICICI telling me that since my account is a student account, they will allow me only a limited number of over-the-counter transactions per quarter, after which I will be charged for every transaction.
In addition to this, I have realised that may cheque book contains only crossed cheques, which means that I cannot write cheques to myself. Which further means that without my debit card, I cannot touch my money.
I borrow a bike and ride over to Koramangala, in Bangalore's traffic which is already becoming legendary for its irritation value.
When I enter the bank, the air conditioner is not working. The staff looks distinctly overworked. The crowd is larger than usual. There seems to be a crisis on. The smell of panic is in the air mingling with the smell of sweat trapped in a room intended to be air conditioned and therefore sealed off from the outside world by glass windows which add to the greenhouse effect. I assume that it looks bad because I am in a state of panic. For the first time I find myself in a queue in ICICI. The lady at the counter is trying hard to be polite despite the heat.
When I step up to her she gives me a tired smile and asks me what I need. I sheepishly tell her I've lost my debit card. She asks me if it's really lost or just misplaced. I tell her it's gone. She grins and asks me if it's been whacked. I grin and reply that it has. She gives me a form, I fill it out and leave feeling somewahat reassured. Three weeks later I have my new card and pin. ICICI has done it again.

I need to get a bank draft. It is 6 P.M. I feel no fear, since ICICI has started its 8 to 8 banking service, which means I can get a draft after work. I arrive at the new location of the Koramangala branch at 7 P.M. I enter the bank and am struck dumb at the sheer number of people there. I walk over to a counter where a harried looking young man in a tie that is obviopusly an encumberment, is busily writing something on top of a printed form. I ask him for a draft form, at which he looks up and tells me to go get a token. He is obviously unwilling to divulge any further information until I get a token so I go in search of one. I realise that there is a machine that dispenses these tokens and then the numbers are announced via a screen. The token machine has a number of options, none of which seems applicable to my scenario. I take the one that looks closest to what I want and sit down. I look up at the screen and realise that there are about 50 people ahead of me. I look towards the row of numbered counters and realise that there are four counters in operation. I try to calculate the average time a customer takes at the counter in the hope of applying queuing theory to this situation, in order to deduce how much time I will be waiting. From what my Operations Research professor told me a year ago, I conclude that I will be there for about 25 minutes. At the end of half an hour I have realised that Operations Research in theory is different from operations research in practice. There are still thirty people ahead of me and life isnt going anywhere in a hurry. I decide to come back early the next day, since the time is 7:20 P.M. and I am sure the bank will close before everyone is served anyway. I leave the bank to find that my bike has been towed away from ICICI bank's parking space. Ultimately the draft does not get made and I make my payment in cash drawn from the ATM.

A friend in the US has just received a mailer telling him that his bank documents, which were stored in the ICICI Mumbai branch have been washed away in the recent floods.
He needs to resubmit them before September 30th if he wishes to keep his account active.
He sends the completed forms and other documentation to his family in India. I take them over to the ICICI Direct office on Infantry Road, where I have been sent from another branch, who refused to accept them. Apparently networked computing doesnt work for ICICI any more and branches are becoming more autonomous.
At the ICICI direct office, I am greeted by a thirtysomething man, who takes the form and looks through it, before informing me that the form needs more signatures. I ask him why this is so. He tells me that some of the columns were not supposed to be filled and have been filled, and he has had to cancel them out. However, a scratch on the form requires a signature from the account holder. Therefore for 10 of these scratches 10 more signatures are required all over the form. I inform him that the account holder is in the U.S. and signatures will not be easy to procure. He tells me that the form cannot be accepted without them. At this point an enterprising young lady who has been listening suggests that she will call the head office and confirm. She does so, only to be told by the head office that she cannot accept any "incomplete" forms. I tell her that the fact that the records got washed away in the first place is the bank's fault and therefore the consumer should not suffer. She agrees but can do nothing.
I ask her if there is any way of doing this online. She tells me that there isn't. I suggest scanning the forms and sending them across. This seems to strike gold. I tell her I will return on Saturday. I have not been to the bank since. The forms have still not been sent.
ICICI continues to function as one of the largest commercial banks in the country. And I continue to transact with them in the hope that something will improve. But from the looks of things, next year, I confidently expect to be told that my money has been eaten by rodents in the recent infestation and if I wish to preserve my account I need to deposit back the ammount that was originally in my account. In denominations of 1 and 5 Rupee coins, because the slot machine that I will use for this purpose cannot handle paper money.

1 comment:

Divya Chakravarthy said...

How could you not include the hell they gave you over the password regeneration!

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