There are so many things that defy logic and explanation in India that I’ve virtually given up writing about them on this blog but I feel motivated enough to write about yet another absurd Indian practice that angers me while at the same time amuses me. It’s labeled as being more efficient and yet you end up with multiple dormant bank accounts that never get used again.
When I arrived in India in January 2008 I had to open a bank account to receive my salary. Nothing unusual about that, the company brought in the representative from Standard Chartered (a British bank which rather oddly doesn’t operate in Britain), I filled out some documents, gave 10 million forms of ID along with a blood sample, and then, just to make sure I really was who I said I was, they made me copy out my signature 10 times to ensure it matched EXACTLY each time.
Apparently in India no one can forge a signature and it’s the most secure method against someone stealing your identity – according to my boss, anyway.
So I got a Standard Chartered account and I was happy, they even upgraded me to a Priority Customer because they reckoned they could make some cash out of me. As far as I could tell, being a Priority Customer meant you could flash a little black credit card around and pay 2,000 rupees (about 26 pounds) a year for the privilege of proving to the lowly shop assistant that you were far superior to them. (or in the immortal words of Harry Enfield: “I’m considerably richer, than yowse“)
But then disaster struck. My company decided that Standard Chartered was the most evil, money grabbing, greedy bank in existence (and since it’s British, they are almost correct in that allegation, but I think surely RBS must take that crown) and effective immediately, no further dealings would be done with them.
So how does that affect me?
Well, *deep breath* in India (the country that basically developed the software that powers the modern global financial system and built all the websites what we use for our online banking to send payments at a click of a button and who provides all the telephone banking support to the westerners), all businesses, big and small, are unable to process staff salaries to different bank accounts because I suspect they lack the technological means to do so. I mean, entering an account number and sort code for each employee is pretty high tech, right?
The inability to enter an account number and sort code in to the salary processing software means that a company will do a tie up with a bank and make all their employees open a salary account with that one bank and only pay salary to accounts with that bank – banks here apparently DO have the ability to send payments to their own customers.
It doesn’t matter if you’re currently paying your mortgage or loan with another bank, if you switch jobs or your company decides to use another bank for salary processing you are forced to have the additional headache of making sure there are always enough funds in the old account to meet the monthly repayments.
I had my Standard Chartered account, I was expected to feel special with my little black card, and to all extents and purposes, I was quite happy to bank with an English bank.
But the relationship didn’t last, the company decided that all 200+ employees must open new accounts with a bank called Axis Bank who promised lower fees, better service and the deal clincher: a free pen worth 500 rupees. They do love their freebies in India.
For an entire week the representative was in the office assisting the staff fill out the reams of paperwork and helpfully pointing out that their signatures were out by as much as 3 mm and it absolutely had to be exactly the same otherwise they might not be who they said they were.
Being a foreigner in a country that prides itself on inefficient bureaucracy I obviously had even more paperwork than everyone else because I could easily be here on false pretenses and actually trying to subvert this glorious country back to the dark colonial times. This meant I needed passport copies, residential agreements, visa documents, tax documents and loads of passport photos which had to each be attested by two different people that it was a good likeness of me.
Two weeks later I got all the paperwork back because the signatures on two of the documents didn’t match exactly and they were worried that I might not be who I said I was – I sometimes do the ‘g’ part of Claridge a bit different and that was the problem here, a quick glance and you couldn’t tell the difference, but closer inspection would reveal that the loop on the g wasn’t as big as on the other signatures. This Is India where your identity is determined by a signature
The fact that the account representative sat there and watched as I duly signed each document infront of him was apparently meaningless – “but sir, if your signatures don’t match exactly, you could be anyone!” “yes, this is true, when I put my new glasses on, some people do mistake me for Gandhi” – but he didn’t get the joke “no sir, Gandhi is Indian only”.
Eventually, after much practice, and with the account representative getting more and more agitated that this stupid foreigner couldn’t even make his signature match up, I managed to get 10 signatures to match so perfectly even the eagle eyed desk wallas couldn’t notice any difference.
Yay! I now had a new, entirely pointless, bank account with Axis Bank. No more money went in to Standard Chartered, but Axis Bank decided that I could continue feeling superior and gave me a new platinum card (which was actually black) for a better price of 1,500 rupees a year and came with numerous advantages and benefits such as being able to use it in any ATM in India* (*you may be charged for withdrawals from non-Axis Bank ATMs) and swipe it to pay for my shopping in at least 10 stores all over India. What’s more is that it comes with built in anti-fraud measures such as having your signature on the back which is totally unique to only you. Oh yeah. Living the dream!
Quite soon, with my new ultra cool, signature-secure Axis Bank account I forgot all about Standard Chartered and started making fixed deposits and building a nice little nest egg, but it wasn’t to last. This is India. And in India expect not just the unexpected but something to blow you away so completely that defies all logic and reasoning in the real world.
My company decided that Axis Bank were greedy, money grabbing, thieving robbing bastards and they’d rather rot in hell than have anything else to do with them. Turns out that the low-rollers, those that didn’t get signature-secure little black credit cards, were not treated in the same way that ‘privileged’ customers such as myself were dealt with. Because many people earn such small amounts, Axis Bank decided that they needed to be charged a monthly ‘low usage fee’ so that the bank could make more money out of them and ensure that the poor and downtrodden stay poor and downtrodden. Whatever next? Signature-secure debit cards for the housekeeping staff? Perish the thought!
Anyway, can you see what’s coming?
I have to open another new bank account because Indian companies are unable to pay salary to people who have accounts with different banks. Emerging super-power indeed!
The hunt for a new bank began, the management looked at HDFC, SBI, Barclays (yay! British!), Citibank and more. Then along came a Standard Chartered rep who asked if the company would be interested in switching to them, “Hah! No way!” was the company reply “but we’ll give you a free pen worth 1,000 rupees for switching to us” “Ooo, where do we sign?”.
Back full circle, the company is again signing up 200+ employees to get Standard Chartered accounts so that they can be paid their salary.
Me: Ah hah! I already have a Standard Chartered account, here are my details.
Them: Ah hah! Your signatures don’t match, you could be ANYONE! You must go to your local branch 15km away and prove that you are Peter Claridge and then they will make a final decision on whether you are actually Peter Claridge or not. And oh, because you haven’t used your account in over 12 months you have incurred a banking fee of Rs 2,500, would you like to write us a cheque or would you like us to deduct it from your next salary credit?
Me: You still use cheques here?
Them: Yes, it’s very secure because it has your signature on it
We’ve now reached a bit of an impasse because the finance director is screaming at me to get my Standard Chartered account sorted so the company can pay me, I’m saying hell no, pay me to my Axis account here is my account number and sort code and the Standard Chartered account rep is begging me to make my signatures match.
I asked why on Earth companies in India are unable to pay people to the bank account of their choice and I got a tirade of abuse back from my boss on how I think the West does everything so much better and that it is easier and more efficient for companies to pay everyone in the same bank.
Easier for companies maybe, but at the current rate if I stay in India for another 3 years I’ll end up with 6 different bank accounts – and according to my boss that’s far more efficient! TII