When an ATM stands for Any Thing but Money

K. JAVEED NAYEEM writes: These days we have been having a spate of serial government and bank holidays.

Last month it was because of the Dasara coinciding with Bakrid which also happened to be holding hands with Maharshi Valmiki Jayanthi across just one working day in between. This month it was because of Rajyotsava coinciding with Diwali, with the Naraka Chaturdasi and Balipadyami sitting astride on either side of a Sunday.

The net result of such coincidences is that an already non-working government hardly gets to work and banks which have now left most of their work to computers and ATMs, simply leave customers’ needs to fate. And, as we all know, fate is usually very unkind.

It is a very well-known fact that in our country, even on normal working days, most of the ATMs do not work satisfactorily.

But on occasions of serial holidays like what we saw very recently they are completely useless. Except for the very rich, for most ordinary people, a savings bank account is a safe place to keep their hard-earned money and draw it in time of dire need. This is what the ATM service is supposed to ensure.

But I have seen anxious and upset people running from one ATM to another outside banking hours, trying to squeeze some cash out of them in vain.

Just to test how futile this exercise is I decided to draw just Rs 10,000 last month during Dasara time. My quest led me through seven ATMs before the one at the main branch of the State Bank of Mysore yielded fruit.

This month, during the extended Diwali holidays, to test the system once again, I repeated the same exercise in a journey that took me across 14 ATMs from N. R. Mohalla, Bannimantap, Ashoka Road, Medical College, Railway Station, Yadvagiri, Jayalakshmipuram to Gokulam.

After this most interesting odyssey I was able to squeeze cash from four different ATMs only in Rs 100-notes to get my Rs 10,000. For me this marathon was interesting just because I was not really in need of any money but was only on a voyage of discovery.

The messages that greeted me ranged from a blank and unresponsive screen to ‘off line’, ‘out of order’, ‘unable to dispense cash’, ‘this card is not valid’, ‘unable to read card’ and ‘try a lesser amount’.

When I decided to obediently follow the last bit of advice at four ATMs, I had to go on lowering my request like a beggar who solicits money for a meal from a not-so-generous giver, until they agreed to give me a maximum of Rs 500 each. And, it was not anybody else’s but my own hard-earned money that I was asking for and thankfully it was not for a meal.

I have had such exasperating experiences with a non-performing debit card or an empty or non-functioning ATM despite a full bank account, that I now never enter a hotel or buy anything from a shop unless I have sufficient cash in my wallet to pay the bill.

Armed thus, I then pay by card, keeping the cash aside to bail me out of a potentially embarrassing situation. At petrol stations I first swipe the card and then proceed to get my tank filled only after a successful transaction.

Although a letdown at an ATM is a fairly common experience in our country it is almost a rarity abroad. I have not had any problems whatsoever while drawing money from any ATM anywhere outside the country during any of my visits abroad although all my bank accounts were local with international debit card facility.

Even during the more than a month- long Haj pilgrimage, which is an occasion where nearly 40 lakh people congregate at one place, I never ever experienced any problem at any ATM. And, the Haj is without doubt, the largest congregation of people in the world which imposes the heaviest load on banking services, with people thronging ATMs wherever they are.

In many countries customers are compensated if they are put to even the slightest inconvenience due to any malfunctioning of banking services. But here in India the customer who is ironically called ‘king’ till he opens the bank account always comes last in any service providing situation and nobody seems to be bothered to set this shameful position right.

When an ATM fails to work and when you approach the bank located just alongside it for help, you are curtly told that since ATMs are serviced and replenished by an outside agency they can do nothing to help. This is so even if you happen to have an account in the very same branch.

At the most they advise you to call the toll-free number given at the ATM which usually remains unresponsive thus exacting a heavy toll on your nerves.

The result is that in an emergency, one cannot completely depend on an ATM to bail himself or herself out against an urgent need for ready cash.

Despite this sorry state of affairs our banks continue to discourage transactions at their cash counters and encourage people to obtain debit cards and draw cash through ATMs.

Is this not then just a ploy to remain indolent and lazy?

Day by day our banking services are only getting more and more expensive for customers without any visible improvement in the quality of the service that they provide. It is now reliably learnt that from the coming year the rents on safe deposit lockers are likely to be almost doubled with the stipulation that not more than two free operations will be allowed per month. All additional operations are likely to be charged.

When it is the customers’ money on which it thrives, should our banking system not care to ensure some minimum standards for the services it is supposed to provide?

Since ATMs are controlled by a central server, is it not possible to monitor cash withdrawal patterns and ensure adequate and prompt replenishment?

And in the event of a series of holidays coming in a row, why is it not possible to keep this refilling system going even if the banks themselves are closed?

But all this needs a will. A will to give ourselves a better and a more dignified life. Until then our ATMs, will simply remain a modern-day bane and continue to dispense Any Thing but Money.

(K. Javeed Nayeem is a practising physician who writes a weekly column in Star of Mysore, where this piece originally appeared)