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Banks need safer locker systems

Given the apathy shown by most Indian banks towards safety and security, bank robberies are not very rare these days. Even last week, a branch of Andhra Bank in B'lore was looted in broad daylight. Pushpa Girimaji tells us.

india Updated: Feb 16, 2008 04:16 IST
Pushpa Girimaji

Given the apathy shown by most Indian banks towards safety and security, bank robberies are not very rare these days. Even last week, a branch of public sector Andhra Bank on a busy street in Bangalore was looted in broad daylight. Soon after, Bangalore police had complained that despite repeated requests, banks were not hiring security guards and installing closed circuit TVs and alarm systems to prevent such holdups.

Similarly, in Ludhiana, following a robbery at a branch of Oriental Bank in September last year, the police had undertaken a survey on bank security and found that most banks there did not have functional alarms, CCTVs or even night guards. Worse, 46 (out of 326) banks surveyed did not even have security guards. It's no wonder that banks are easy targets for robbers and burglars!.

However, if you tend to dismiss these as small robberies and think that the big ones happen only in movies, think again A daring robbery at Dhaka, Bangladesh, last month when robbers cleaned out not just the vaults of the bank, but also the safe deposit lockers of bank customers, is a case in point. According to reports from Dhaka, the thieves broke into 75 of the 103 lockers in the strong room of the bank. Of these, 62 belonged to the depositors. Worse, the bank told the hirers of lockers that as per the terms and conditions governing the lockers, the bank will not be responsible for loss of valuables due to theft, robbery, fire or any other reason.

We, in India, may not have (fortunately) had a robbery of this sort, but given the shooting crime graph, one cannot overlook such a possibility. Even otherwise, there have been a number of cases of locker thefts (mostly involving employees of the bank), pointing to slack security in place in banks.

Replying to a question in the Lok Sabha on August 17 last year on thefts of valuables kept in bank lockers, the Finance Minister P Chidambaram referred to the two cases in Delhi (PNB and SBI) in 2004 and said that to retain the confidence and trust of customers, PNB’s board had decided to compensate their financial loss to the extent of Rs 63.34 lakh. Of the 15 customers who could be contacted, three reported that their lockers were empty. While ten customers accepted the amount, two disputed the same.

One of the customers had claimed Rs 4.00 lakh for mental agony. Another had increased his earlier claim and had also claimed Rs 68,500/- towards travelling expenses. These claims have not been admitted. As for the State Bank of India, Malaviya Nagar (New Delhi) branch, it settled the claims of customers to the tune of Rs 46.80 lakh.. Chidambaram also referred to the theft of jewellery from a locker in a branch of SBI in New Ballygunj in 2006 and said that the bank was examining the claim for Rs 5 lakh.

Unfortunately, banks are not always ready to accept responsibility for the loss of customers' valuables kept in their lockers and compensate them adequately. As a result, consumers are forced to knock at the doors of the consumer courts for relief. In several such cases, the apex consumer court has made it clear that it is the responsibility of the bank to ensure the safety of lockers and their contents and the bank has to compensate the consumer for loss of valuables kept in the locker.

However, in many cases, monetary compensation cannot really make up for the loss of jewellery, particularly those handed down for generations.

The sum and substance of all this is that while banks have to step up safety measures, consumers have to put pressure on them to do so. They also need to critically examine what banks offer in terms of security vis-à-vis their safe deposit lockers. In several banks, I have seen security guards being used as peons — they are given small errands to do, such as supplying pay-in slips to customers, distributing tea to officers, etc.

Given the developments in the area of electronic security, surely banks can put a proper security and alarm system in place? In fact, banks should get experts in security to assess the threat perception and suggest measures to tighten security. They also need to religiously follow some basic norms such as changing the key every time a locker changes hands and verifying the identity and signature of the person seeking access to the locker.

Banks are also supposed to record the time of entry and exit of those who rent lockers, but most of them never bother to record the exit time. Nor do they check the strong room before locking it up. Some years ago, a woman customer was locked up (if I remember right, for at least two days on account of intervening bank holidays) in the strong room of a bank in Kolkata because the bank failed to do this basic check. She was fortunate enough to survive.

Again, in January 2004, a bank in Sonepat closed its strong room doors and locked it, without realizing that an elderly customer was operating the locker! It is wise for a customer to ask a bank key questions on its security set-up. When you hire a locker, the bank asks you to sign an agreement form. Read it carefully before signing and get a copy. Remember, banks cannot say that they will not be responsible for the loss or theft of valuables kept in the locker.

If they cannot take responsibility for the safety of the contents, then they have no business to offer safe deposit lockers at all in the first place. But do maintain a list of what you have kept in the locker.