TWO DAYS after Cyclone Vardah lashed Chennai, the city remained off the digital map with disrupted telecom and Internet services affecting operations at ATMs and rendering PoS swipe machines useless.
According to officials in leading banks, only 30 per cent of their ATMs were functioning while a majority of shops and business establishments, and essential services such as hospitals, were unable to process online transactions.
Given the cash crunch following the demonetisation move, minor scuffles were also reported from fuel stations in the city that were unable to process debit or credit cards.
Officials from four leading private hospitals said they had “never faced such a crisis before”.
“Even during the floods of last December, with more casualties over a week, we did not face this crisis in dealing with currency. People had cash even though communication networks were down for over two weeks at the time,” said a hospital official.
According to officials, the discharge procedures of many were delayed with hospitals and patients unable to settle bills.
“Unless the bills are attached to insurance companies or government payments, we couldn’t allow a settlement. The patients are also helpless, they are unable to get currency notes even for a payment of Rs 1,000,” said a hospital director, on condition of anonymity.
Describing his experience at a leading hospital, where he undergoes dialysis thrice a week, popular Tamil writer Gnani Sankaran said that he was among many patients — some had undergone surgeries recently — standing in the queue for payment with the PoS machines not functioning.
“I was sitting and waiting as I was not able to stand. They had a dozen swipe machines but all were dead, except one. Even that one machine was showing an error message repeatedly. And, this is the situation in one of the finest hospitals in Chennai. It’s no-one’s fault but that of our Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has made me and all the sick people here stand and wait for such a long time to make that single payment,” said the 62-year-old.
Officials from SBI, Indian Overseas Bank, Indian Bank and Canara Bank said that a majority of ATMs run by public sector banks in the city remain shut on Wednesday. “The ATMs are not functioning because the data network is down. Many ATMs attached to bank branches with power or diesel back-up are empty,” said a senior SBI official.
At the Nungambakkam SBI ATM, officials were seen struggling to load Rs 100 notes for almost an hour, with over 70 people waiting in queue. But the officials’ efforts were in vain, forcing them to leave.
A senior RBI official said that new notes of Rs 500 and those of Rs 100 remained unavailable. “Even the number of new Rs 2,000 bills are inadequate. The total disbursal of Rs 84 crore to the SBI Chennai region on Wednesday was not adequate for even a day,” he said.
Another RBI official said that the number of complaints from Chennai banks about the safety of officials has been rising. “As the cash drains out fast, officials are forced to explain to the people standing in queue who abuse them,” said the official.
“The shortage of currency has been steadily worsening and branches are not able to make payments as per limits fixed by the government. They are forced to ration cash. Only a handful of bank branches in the state are able to release the weekly withdrawal limit, which is Rs 24,000,” said the official.
A senior state government official said that relief work during the cyclone was facing hurdles as contractors are unable to pay workers their daily wages. “Workers engaged in relief and cleaning work ask for cash to buy rations for the day,” said officials.
On Monday, cash replenishment agencies had informed banks in the state that they would not be able to work overtime due to staff safety concerns or accept currency to upload in ATMs after 11am.
“They have informed banks that they will not provide any ATM site services after 5 pm, and on Sundays and bank holidays. This will worsen the crisis with bank officials being gheraoed by the public for not releasing cash and opening ATMs,” said an RBI official.