This is not a COVID-19 story, although it could perhaps be seen as a COVID-19-enhanced one. It is basically a tale about a customer caught in the middle, or more accurately the muddle, of a major bank merger.
Flashback to 1 April, 2019, when words like Coronavirus, pandemic, lockdown, quarantine, comorbidities, etc., were not part of our daily lexicon, masks were not daily wear accessories, and aerosol usually referred to a type of deodorant. In hindsight I wonder whether April Fool’s Day was deliberately chosen as the day on which Dena Bank and Vijaya Bank became part of Bank of Baroda (BoB), making BoB India's third-largest bank (second-largest public sector bank), with a total business of about ₹15 trillion.
I must confess that my only interest in this development derives from the fact that I have been a Vijaya Bank (VB) customer since 1988. Back then my branch was touted as a model, posher than most and among the first to be computerised.
A brokerage firm quoted by a leading financial daily on April 1, 2019, did not see “any major integration issues dragging the performance of the bank and … predicted that the merger (was) likely to be a smooth process.” According to market reports quoted by the same newspaper, “the back-end technology integration would … be relatively smooth.” A follow-up report the next day repeatedly assured customers that they “will be notified well in advance” about any changes resulting from the merger.
Cut to December. The very first merger-related communication I received was a terse SMS from VB on December 2 that curtly informed me that my credit card ‘is invalid from 01-Jan-2020 due to amalgamation’ and that I should contact my ‘base branch for issue of fresh BOB credit card.’ I thought the least they could have done is send an email.
Anyway, in those halcyon, pre-pandemic days it was actually possible to go to the bank without fearing for one’s life. I managed to submit the form and other required documents, but clearly the VB staff had no information about the process and were merely collecting the paperwork while awaiting orders. The new credit card eventually arrived in mid-January.
However, soon thereafter came another, mystifying SMS announcing that some terms and conditions of the card would be revised from March 1 — less than two months after it was issued! Again, the VB branch personnel had no idea what this was about.
If communication between the merged banks — and/or between decision makers and staffers — left much to be desired, even essential communiques to customers were few and far between, not to mention brusque and unhelpful. I discovered quite by chance that my credit card bills were no longer being automatically debited from my account as they had been for many years. This unilateral, unannounced action turned out to be a primary source of my banking woes during the lockdown and after.
I could do nothing about the stern warnings about pending credit card bills that I received during the lockdown because, (a) the auto-debit facility had been suspended without prior notice; and, (b) the process of registering my new BoB debit card for online payments and net banking was incredibly protracted and tortuous.
I tried my best to get the problem addressed through regular, persistent e-mails to all and sundry in BoB and VB. Several ‘new tickets’ (for the same service request) and robotic responses from the ‘Credit Card Customer Service Team’ later, it became clear that the bank was unable — or unwilling or both — to find a workable solution, despite the COVID-19 crisis and my related ‘vulnerable senior citizen’ identity. My first sortie into the Coronavirus afflicted ‘outside’ during Lockdown 3.0 was to an ATM kiosk to physically generate a pin for my new debit card.
Unfortunately, since my branch had not yet been ‘migrated to BoB systems’ — more than a year after the merger — registering the card online was no routine procedure. This was partly because of confusion, even among staff, about the appropriate website: BoB, VB or e-Vijaya via BoB. If I am sane at the end of this painful, time and energy consuming process, it is thanks to the one informed, patient and helpful BoB officer I managed to connect with in mid-May (introduced by a sympathetic but evidently helpless officer).
So much for the doorstep banking for senior citizens advocated by the Reserve Bank of India, with a circular on March 31 reminding banks about its December 2017 instructions.Ammu Joseph is a Bengaluru-based journalist and author. Views are personal.