Ripened paddy sways in the breeze that courses through the endless fields of Talanga village in Bhadrak district. Opposite a temple, dedicated to both Shiva and Hanuman, a tiny shop at this village in north-eastern Odisha is where much of the activity is concentrated on this dreary Thursday morning. The shop, a common services centre (a substitute for a bank branch), has been a hub of commotion ever since the Modi government scrapped the old Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. There is a comparatively lesser crowd today as it is the first Thursday of the Margasira month — auspicious for the village women, busy worshipping Goddess Lakshmi.
“Ever since the demonetisation was announced, hundreds of villagers are coming either to exchange notes or withdraw money. And due to rumours that Rs 5 and Rs 10 coins had become invalid, I am getting sackfuls of them,” says Mahesh Mishra, the bank mitra or business correspondent who runs the common service centre. “Housewives who had hidden coins in oil cans, piggy banks and several other places have come with coins seeking Rs 100 currency notes,” he chuckles.
The bespectacled, bearded young man, in a bright pink shirt and low-waist jeans, is a banking lifeline for the over 5,000 villagers of Ambaroli gram panchayat, where there are no bank branches or ATMs.
A bachelor in computer applications, Mishra began this centre in 2007 under the e-Governance Services India Limited scheme. He became a banking correspondent for the Bank of Baroda’s Bhadrak-Urban branch for Ambaroli in 2014 and just last month added the SBI to his list of clients. However, it is the 2,000-odd bank accounts of Bank of Baroda, most of them under the no-frills Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, that earn him his bread and butter.
This morning, as he settles in behind a wooden and tin desk with a smart phone, in a room with plastic chairs, an inkjet scanner-cum-copier-cum-printer, a desktop computer and a register, Akshay Jena, a poultry shop owner, and his nephew, a college student in neighbouring Balasore district, step in.
“Would you have change for Rs 1,500?” Jena asks, as his nephew flashes three Rs 500 denomination notes. It is around 10.15 am and Jena is anxious as his nephew has to leave for college. “Don’t worry. But it will take some time,” says Mishra, their conversation punctuated by the incessant noise from the fabricating unit next door, where workers are cutting through large iron plates. The bank correspondent is short of Rs 100 notes and makes various permutations and combinations on how to hand over the money.
At 10.30 am, Uday Kumar Swain, 24, who works in a pharmacy store in nearby Charampa Bazaar area, strolls in to check on the balance in his Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana account, which he had opened a little over two years ago. Mishra switches on his Lenovo laptop, connects the fingerprint scanner to one of the USB ports and is hooked onto the Internet through his Jio mobile connection. He logs into the bank’s website and then asks Swain to put his right thumb on the scanner.
“Press your thumb a little harder. The machine is not able to recognise you,” Mishra says, as the scanner refuses to pick up Swain’s fingerprints. After some unsuccessful tries, the duo finally gain access to Swain’s Bank of Baroda account. Mishra notes the balance and accepts Swain’s passbook to update it. As he flips through the pages, Mishra admonishes Swain: “Why have you stapled your photo onto the passbook? We cannot put anything stapled through the bank’s passbook printer,” he says as he removes the staple pins with his nails. “Anyway come back after a couple of days. The printer is out of order,” Mishra adds.
It is one of the many functions entrusted to the business correspondent or bank mitra, an institution begun by the Reserve Bank of India in January 2006, as part of its effort to ensure financial inclusion in rural areas where banks don’t find it profitable to start a branch.
The mitras are local youth who have cleared an online exam, and have been trained in opening bank accounts, disbursing small credit, selling insurance and mutual fund products and who can receive remittances of smaller value. They either get a monthly retainership or commission on each of the transactions.
They are a boon for places like Bhadrak, where at least 30 per cent of the local youth are cooks, drivers, plumbers and security guards in Bangalore, and route their remittances to their families through the bank correspondents. Bhadrak is among the 356 underbanked districts (where the average population per branch office is over the national average of 9,280) as per the RBI, but its exclusion from the financial radar is even more stark: there are 140 bank branches in the district, but at least 148 of its 193 gram panchayats have none.
Over the past week, much of Mishra’s work has centred around handling the fallout of demonetisation. He says he has been sleeping late every night and doesn’t have enough currency to meet the villagers’ demands. This morning he arrived with just Rs 19,000 that his branch had handed him.
Meanwhile, Nayak, who has been waiting with his nephew, leans onto the desk and asks if he can get his change. “Just a minute,” says Mishra, as he takes out 15 notes of Rs 100 each and hands them to the duo. He then scribbles down the transaction into a register. Within the hour, railway contractor Ratikanta Nayak walks in with a list of 45 labourers who have cleaned the Bhadrak railway station but have not received their monthly payments of Rs 5,300 to Rs 7,400. Nayak wants to know why the bank has not been transferring the money from the Railways’ account to the labourers’ individual accounts even though he had lodged a complaint with bank last week.
Mishra tells him that after demonetisation, the bank has taken away his administrator rights and hence he cannot carry out the transaction. The bank, he adds, wants proof from the East Coast Railways that the contractor works for it. “Come in the afternoon. We will go together to the bank to sort it out,” he assures Nayak. Just before lunch, Anadi Sahu and his wife Laxmipriya Sahu come to withdraw Rs 12,000 from her Jan Dhan account. “Sorry. You can’t withdraw anything over Rs 2,500,” Mishra says, as he beckons the woman towards the fingerprint scanner. As Laxmipriya fumbles, Mishra hollers: “Bisi anguli (index finger).”
As the couple eventually leave with Rs 2,000, Kamala Kanta Panda, a driver working in Gujarat, comes looking to withdraw Rs 20,000 from his account. Mishra though tells him that the withdrawal limit has been pegged at Rs 2,500. Despite the inconvenience, Panda says he is unperturbed as he supports the demonetisation. “Though I am facing difficulties, Modi should punish the corrupt people,” Panda says.
The next set of visitors have nothing to do with Mishra’s work as a business correspondent: a few college girls seek information on their scholarship from an online portal, while the headmaster and a teacher of a local high school troop in to confirm if the Rs 10,000 odd they had e-transferred into the bank account of the Board of Secondary Education, for next year’s matriculation exam, had got transferred.
Mishra says he also does Aadhaar enrolment and picks up online caste and income certificates from the tehsildar’s office to supplement his income. The correspondent gets Rs 350 for every Rs 1 lakh deposit and Rs 200 for every withdrawal of Rs 1 lakh. A lion’s share of it is taken by the e-Governance Services India Limited that runs the common service centre scheme. In August, Mishra made Rs 3,956.
Despite the meagre earnings, Mishra has opened two more common service centres, in the neighbouring gram panchayats of Rambhila and Bandhugaon, one of them in the name of his wife Sasmita. He is hopeful that someday he will make a profit. There are two other banking mitras here, one for the Central Bank of India and the other for Canara Bank, but Mishra is the busiest of them.
Head mason Kamalakanta Nayak, who also has a Jan Dhan account, says it is very difficult for villagers to travel to Bhadrak, at least 8 km away, for daily transactions. “If we go to the bank, we lose a day’s earnings. Mishra babu solves our problem. His shop is open in the evening and we can transact after getting back from work,” Nayak says. The villagers still hope for an ATM, withthe nearest one at the Bhadrak railway station, at least 6 km away.
In the afternoon, when the customer demand dries up, Mishra asks his father to mind the counter and rides to the Bank of Baroda branch in Bhadrak with the railway contractor whose money transfers have been held up.
At the branch, he spends almost an hour getting the bank transfer cleared. He also withdraws money to disburse in the evening.
“Of our 21 banking correspondents, Mishra is the most active,” acknowledges Swagat Nayak, the manager of Bank of Baroda, Bhadrak. “But we can’t do anything about hiking his commission as the head office has to take a call on that.”
Returning from the bank at around 5 pm, Mishra is greeted by a blackout in the village. At 6 pm, when electricity is restored, a villager comes with loose change of Rs 1, 2, 5 and 10 coins, amounting to Rs 10,800. He asks for currency notes. “There are rumours that Rs 10 coins are no longer valid. Is it true?” the man asks. Mishra assures him that he can bring as much coins as he wants: “Don’t pay heed to the rumours.”
At 10 pm, with the panchayat asleep and the temperature dipping, Mishra is finishing up his work. “I may probably earn a little more commission if the bank allows me to lend like the other banks. But my manager says his is a urban bank and my customers stay in a rural area. It’s difficult to work as a banking correspondent on such low commission. I incur losses everyday. But someday I hope I to make enough money,” he says.