‘Everything’s stuck’: PMC Bank account holders face miseriesUpdated: Oct 23, 2019 00:06 IST
Mumbai: No one in the Kotai family in Mulund in Mumbai’s north west voted in the assembly elections held on Monday -- not because of apathy but in protest. The joint family has 18 voting-age people and each of them has an account with the local branch of the Punjab and Maharashtra Co-operative (PMC) Bank, including 90-year-old Ghanshyam Das, the oldest of them. “Assets, earnings, pension – everything is stuck,” said Kamal Kotai, his son. “Mulund had been set up as a rehabilitation colony for refugees from Pakistan. The first generation of Partition refugees like my father came here broke and he says that the third generation has been made broke by this scam,” said Kotai.
On October 14, the Reserve Bank of India increased their withdrawal limit to Rs 40,000 but it hasn’t solved the problems of the account holders. For a vast majority of the 1.7 million depositors, life continues to get harder by the day. It all started on September 23, when RBI curtailed the bank’s operations, capping withdrawals to Rs 1000 once in six months. Shortly after, the bank’s managing director, Joy Thomas, was arrested followed by two promoters of Housing Development Infrastructure Limited, Rakesh Wadhawan and Sarang Wadhawan, for their roles in the Rs 4335-crore loan fraud involving dummy firms and spurious audits. The firms and the audits were key to the modus operandi used by the perpetrators of the fraud to loan money to a cash-strapped HDIL. Agencies investigating the fraud have seized some of the Wadhawan’s assets including two business jets, many luxury sedans, and a luxurious farmhouse.
In Mulund, which has been worst hit by the bank crisis, many of the over 15000 account holders in the area say they are struggling to meet daily expenses, let alone handle medical emergencies and wedding plans. Every morning, people queue up at their local branch to withdraw what they are allowed to and appeal for more. In the evenings, their sit before their television screens waiting for any news of further relief from RBI or assurance from the government. “We just can’t understand why the government has been so insensitive. Not a single politician has shown up here, not even the political leaders who represent the constituency,” said Kotai. For days, he joined the protests outside RBI’s headquarters. That’s stopped, though. “The police won’t allow us to gather there anymore.” He has also posted many appeals on Twitter to a wide range of people and institutions. “Prime Minister, Chief minister, Economic Offences Wing, local MLA and even leaders of RSS. I asked people running our local RSS (Rashtriya Swayamseval Sangh) shakha (unit), ‘Will you only come if there is a flood?’. In a flood, 2000 people are affected. But this scam has affected more than 10 million people,” he said.
Kotai and his father are RSS members and feel particularly betrayed by the lack of concern from the neighbourhood unit. “The BJP government said it was fighting black money. But why is it freezing white money earned by tax-paying middle-class professionals?,” he asked. On Tuesday, hundreds gathered in central Mumbai’s Azad Maidan, waving placards that said ‘Black Diwali’, ‘No Bail, Only Jail,’ and ‘Save PMC, Save us.’ In a meeting with some of their representatives, RBI authorities said the account holders’ money is safe.
Back in Mulund, Samuel Lewis kept track of the protest via WhatsApp. A life coach who has also a “huge amount of savings” stuck in the bank, Lewis has been encouraging the community of affected depositors to share their feelings instead of suffering privately. “Overnight, without our consent, without any consultation, you froze our accounts bringing 1.7 million people down to their knees. Their dignity is not negotiable. We are being told that stringent action is being taken against those accountable, but why are we punished alongside? What is the difference then between the perpetrators and victims of this scam?”
He said the crisis must be confronted on “humanitarian grounds.” On Monday, news broke of another person’s death in connection with the banking fraud. On Sunday afternoon, Bharati Sadarangini, 73, passed away after a cardiac stroke. Family members said the woman in Solapur was stressed for days because her daughter’s savings of Rs 2.25 crore in the Mulund branch of the PMC Bank were stuck. She had no history of cardiac trouble. She was the fifth person to die while worrying about their financial future of themselves and their families in the light of the scam. Three of these deaths were reported from Mulund. “At least 14 people have died here in connection with that, but their families don’t want to face the spotlight,” said Lewis.
Two of those who died lived in the immediate vicinity of Kamini Tote, who had lined up to withdraw whatever she could from the saving accounts of herself and her husband, who works as a driver. She said protesting was a privilege for those who could spare the time. “Last year we heard that the bank got an award for its performance. Our trust is shaken.” She did cast her vote on Monday, but she no longer cares who comes to power in the state next. “It clearly makes no difference to our lives.” Also waiting in the line was AB Sumtiran, a senior corporate professional, who had come prepared to appeal to the bank for at least a lakh to be able to pay for his wife’s scheduled knee surgery. “I am carrying MRI reports, doctor’s recommendations, hospital’s estimate…” he said. For years, he has been following the “rosy” reports of the bank’s financial health. “Regularly I checked its balance sheet for gross profit, net profit, NPAs (bad loans). You obviously look at the history of the bank before parking your money in it. I was also impressed by the number of branches opening everywhere-- 137 at last count. I thought whenever I need my money, I will get it,” he said. “People are having sleepless nights here.” He said the bank staff has been kind and supportive throughout the crisis. “They are themselves in the soup,” said Narayan Lilani, 74, who has been banking with PMC for 25 years. “The person at the counter told me her own father’s lifetime- savings are stuck in his account. They are working without the promise of salary. They have EMIs to pay.”