Sameer Fida Hussain
Abdul Aziz Bhat anxiously waits for his turn to withdraw money from his saving bank account in one of the branches of Jammu and Kashmir Bank in Budgam district. For Bhat, things have not been easy. He did not anticipate the lockdown, owing to which there was a cash crunch at his home. Now, braving all the advisories to stay at home, he has come to withdraw whatever little savings he had kept for exigencies. Bhat is one of the many customers waiting patiently for his turn in a long queue. The others have a similar story to tell.
Of late, social media has been flooded with pictures of people standing in long serpentine queues outside bank branches without bothering about the norms of social and physical distancing. Jammu and Kashmir Bank with its presence in all the major areas of J&K has a large customer base and therefore its branches witness a good customer rush. At a time of growing clamor for social and physical distancing, such laxity is unacceptable, to say the least. The number of Covid positive cases is increasing with each passing day and the last thing that the authorities would want is banks emerging as hotspots for Covid-19 transmission.
As soon as the banks begin their operations, people queue up and in most of the cases ignore the advisory of social and physical distancing. Leave alone green zones, pictures coming from red and buffer zones present a grim scenario. At times, the branch managers have to seek the help of law enforcing agencies to maintain order. God forbid, if there is an asymptomatic positive case among the people standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the queues, what would befall? Ironically, old people who have a far greater threat from the novel coronavirus leave their homes to avail banking facilities. They stand close to each other instead of following the distancing guidelines. The lesser use of alternative banking channels like ATM and net-banking by old-age pensioners, social welfare beneficiaries, mid-day meal beneficiaries, PM Kisan beneficiaries, Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojna account holders, MGNREGA workers, et al, is one of the reasons for crowding at the banks.
We cannot deny the fact that the functioning of banks is imperative in current circumstances, nor can we point fingers at people assembled at these financial institutions, but we can take certain steps to lower the footfall, at least for the time being. Banks can employ the odd-even formula to control the rush of customers. Customers with even and odd account numbers can be dealt with on alternate days. Banks can prepare a roster and designate the working days of a week alternatively for different areas, rather than allowing the clients from all areas to visit the bank every day. While doing all this, the banks necessarily need to publicise the information well in advance so that a messy situation does not arise. Kiosk Banking through Business Correspondents should be encouraged. People turning up at banks should also ensure to follow the advisories of the government vis-à-vis social and physical distancing.
Banks play an important role in the modern economy. A good financial system is the lynchpin of the economy and banks also perform important functions for society. In the present circumstances, the role of banks has assumed all the more importance. Coronavirus has thrown an open challenge to every section of society and bankers are not an exception. We should be indebted to the doctors, paramedics and all those who are at the frontline in the war against coronavirus but at the same time we must also spare a thought for these bank employees. They are working in testing conditions to extend the best possible facilities to customers. One must remember that these bank employees are also at a greater risk of contracting the infection. The authorities at the helm of affairs must ensure the safety of these people by providing them personal protection equipment and increasing the security at different bank branches. Government should also come up with a definite plan/ guidelines with regard to the functioning of banks. Wearing a mask should be made mandatory for every customer entering the bank premises. We should not be naïve to the fact that banks can emerge as potential hotbeds for Covid-19 transmission if the situation remains as it is. The form of coronavirus we are up against is a microscopic monster which makes its way into populations without making much of a fuss. The contagion is spreading and crippling economies. We have to ensure that the deadly chain breaks and for that we have to religiously follow the advisories issued by government from time to time.