Opinion

A Kerala model for bank lockdowns

S Adikesavan | Updated on June 09, 2021

Bank staff Yeoman service   -  Gopakumar S

Working only on alternate days, banks in the State have ensured safety and prevented the emergence of Covid clusters

Kerala always marches to a different tune. In politics and economics, there is a Kerala model and the experience of this small State farthest from Delhi has often evoked national recognition.

The late Dr K.N Raj was behind a study in the 70s which highlighted the social indicator achievements of the State, which was hailed as the “Kerala Model”.

The way Kerala has dealt with Covid-19 too has been different — disciplined, planned and constantly communicated to the people.

The State’s work has been largely appreciated except that it too fell a prey to the second surge, induced by the election fever.

Kerala has also succeeded in protecting bank employees’ lives better than any other State.

In the wake of the second wave, Kerala went for a lockdown early last month and it is continuing up to June 16.

In this process, four out of the 14 districts, including the capital underwent a “triple lockdown”.

Practising SMS

Compliance levels are high here and people by and large practise SMS (Sanitisation, Masking, Social Distancing). Triple lockdown made compliance 100 per cent. The results have been rewarding. Test positivity has dropped below 15 per cent. Recoveries have outpaced infections.

Now we come to the model. The lockdown was imposed by giving notice of three clear days so people could choose to move to their zones of comfort. Supported by Central allocations, the State organised foodgrains for all. More importantly, it runs highly decentralised community kitchens where the caretaker knows who exactly in the locality is needy.

But what was strikingly imaginative was the lockdown’s “customisation” for banks under Section 25 of the Negotiable Instruments Act.

Banks were asked to work only on alternate days with all weekends being holidays. On the working days too, transactions were restricted so branches could shutter by 2 p.m.

The government ordered cooperative banks and commercial banks to alternate their working days which meant that in rural and semi-urban areas where there is an active cooperative bank network, banking services were available throughout the week. Local newspapers would highlight whether the day was a bank holiday or not so that old people and pensioners could plan accordingly.

Banks ensured that ATMs were up and availability was about 95 per cent.

Banking Correspondents were active in providing outlets for service.

The result: minimum inconvenience for both staff and the public, reduced traffic on the street and people-to-people contact as bank branches are hubs of commercial activity.

Elsewhere in the country banking is declared as an essential service and branches normally work all days during lockdown.

There is no way branch staff can stay away from duties unlike even staff in administrative offices like regional/head offices. So they are exposed to a high risk work.

Bank staff have coped bravely with this call of duty. It is the clerical staff at the counters, accountants, field officers, branch managers and the messenger staff who are the unknown warriors of banking during Covid-19.

Bank managements have been highly supportive.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman went on to record repeatedly her appreciation for this unprecedented work of valour as millions of bank employees put service before self. The bank unions say by April 19 itself, nearly 1,300 bank staff had lost their lives to Covid all over the country.

The respective banks should erect something like “Covid-war Memorials” etching the names of all their staff who fell to Covid in front of their head offices. Posterity should remember these brave bank employees.

Contextually, it is worrisome that in none of the States (including Kerala) bank staff have been accorded “frontline” preference even for vaccinations. Bank staff were not officially treated as Front Line Workers (FLW). Some States like Maharashtra even did not allow bank staff to travel on the suburban trains (unlike Government staff) initially even though branches were asked to function without any let-up.

So, what has the Kerala model of bank lockdowns achieved? At least three positive outcomes which holds lessons for the entire country.

* The number of deaths of bank staff in Kerala is the lowest in the country among all major States.

* People-to-people contact can be considerably cut down by shuttering bank branches innovatively. Part of the reason for the Covid-control Kerala has regained by now is owing to banking-based contacts being cut. This contact is very high in rural areas as anyone who has worked in rural areas would know. And our current wave is riding high in rural India. The alternate working day can be immediately adopted wherever required.

* Even without any additional spend or efforts on the part of the government, it helps a cadre of essential services to safeguard their health first so that they can serve the community better.

There is always something which little Kerala does, that makes it a candidate for pan-India attention — often, for the right reasons!

The writer is a top bank executive. Views are personal.

Published on June 09, 2021

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