Remesh Mistry is a villager working with an NGO, but he is so sought after these days that queues begin to form hours before he arrives.
Mistry doubles up as the operator of a customer service point (CSP) of the State Bank of India in Satjelia island of the Sunderbans in West Bengal and is the only source of fresh currency notes for residents of the remote region inhabited by the Royal Bengal tiger and criss-crossed by crocodile-infested rivers.
Known popularly as a ‘business correspondent’ employed part-time by banks to service people in the farthest of corners of the country, Mistry’s importance has multiplied many folds following last month’s demonetisation of high-value bank notes.
Sunderbans is an archipelago of 104 islands, 54 of which have human settlements. The rest are still dense mangrove forests. Life even at the best of times is difficult. It has got harder amid the cash crunch since ATMs are few and banks fewer in the region accessible by rickety boats across choppy rivers.
For past several weeks now, residents have been queuing up for Mistry since 3am. By the time he reaches his small one-room office in Laxbagan village market, dozens are already waiting for him.
He carries cash only to service 20 people a day. The rest return to queue up the next day.
“People have few other options, but to wait for Mistry,” explains Jayanta Naskar, the local legislator from Gosaba.
Gosaba, for example, is one of the 16 administrative blocks in Sunderbans. It comprises nine islands spread over 285 sq km with a population of 2.5 lakh voters. But there is just one nationalised bank branch.
It explains the rush at Mistry’s office. “Initially more than 100 people used to stand in the queue to withdraw cash and exchange notes. But now the late comers go back home as soon as they see 20 people are already in the queue. I have told them that with limited resources I won’t be able to cater to all of them,” says Mistry.
As an arm of the bank, he provides villagers with services ranging from withdrawals, deposits and opening of fixed deposit accounts. The rush in recent weeks though has mostly been for withdrawals.
Mistry has been working longer hours in recent weeks, beginning with collecting cash deposits and requests for withdrawals from those lining up daily. He goes to the main bank branch in the afternoon to deposit the money collected and return with cash for distribution in the evening among those seeking withdrawals.
Yet, tempers are rising. None of his explanations work when villagers are forced to return empty handed or are handed Rs 2,000 note. Quarrels often break out.
Frustrated and peeved, the villagers often shout and abuse Mistry.
Sandhya Dolui, a septuagenarian woman from Kakmari village, speaks highly of the service that Mistry provides. “He is a very decent and patient man. He never loses his patience, no matter how badly you treat him. He will smile back and listen to all your grievances,” she says.
But there are compelling reasons for those who are losing their cool. “Imagine the frustration when you have to return empty handed just because you were not in the first 20. Sometimes you are handed over a polythene bag full of Rs 10 coins or just one Rs 2,000 note. How are we going to manage?” asks an irate villager.
Mistry’s wife has her own share of complaints. Mistry carries the cash in a backpack all by himself to and fro from the bank and his office and she is constantly worried about his well being. Her worries have risen with the advent of winter when tigers stray more often into human habitations looking for prey. The fear of robbers and tigers keep her awake as Mistry works long hours.