Tuesday, October 16, 2007

An Unique Arrangement

I visited Leh, Laddakh in mid 2001 for trekking and seeing the place. Four of us completed our trek along Laddakh's Markha Valley in about eight days and decided to travel south to Srinagar in the Kashmir valley. Although Laddakh and Srinagar are both part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir they have dissimilar cultures and political atmosphere. The predominantly Buddhist Leh has been spared most of the violence that has plagued the state while the predominantly Muslim Kashmir valley has been at the heart of incidents.

We hired a taxi to ferry us to from Leh to Srinagar. The road connecting the two passes through several towns including Kargil that bore witness to a small scale war as recently as 1999. We started at noon from Leh. In spite of the modest distance (~475 Km/300 miles) ahead of us we were obliged to stop in Kargil at nightfall for various reasons. Traffic through the narrow Zoji-La pass was regulated so that vehicles driving North-South could only travel through from sunrise to noon. For the rest of the day the pass would be used by vehicles traveling in the opposite direction. Moreover nighttime civilian travel was not common, even discouraged.

In Kargil we checked into a hotel for the night. During dinner the manager came over and enquired if we had hired the cab in Leh. After we answered he told us to expect the driver to come up with an excuse to end the journey in Kargil and go no further. We would be offered an identical vehicle with a new driver to take us to our destination at no extra cost. It happened exactly as he predicted. Early next day our driver informed us that the car wouldn't start but we could continue our journey in another vehicle that had miraculously appeared out of nowhere in the predawn cold.

The incident was puzzling until we discovered the reason behind it. Our first cab driver was a Buddhist from Laddakh. He didn't dare to venture into Kashmir valley for fear of his life. His replacement was a Muslim from Srinagar who stayed away from Leh. The desire to survive had prompted them to come to an arrangement through which they could still work and split fares.

The rest of our journey was uneventful save for the hair raising transit through the narrow paths of Zoji-La. We reached Srinagar safely and settled into a house boat in Nagin Lake.

I haven't been to Kashmir since. I wonder if things have changed sufficiently for the cabbies to drop their arrangement.

Bank Notes

I recently had to deposit money into a friend's account. He has an account with State Bank of India, Trivandrum branch. For those of you not from around here, that branch is in a city in a different state. All I had to do was:
  1. Locate the nearest SBI branch
  2. Make the deposit
I tried to locate the nearest branch using SBI's Branch Locator. After a few minutes of fiddling with the unwieldy search interface I located a branch using - what else - Google. According to the page the branch had the following "alternate channels" (facilities?) : Internet banking, Core banking, ATM(s). Great, that is all I needed.

Armed with this information I visited the bank and presented my request. I was promptly informed that this particular branch would only let me make deposits if the target account belonged to this branch. So much for "core banking".

All was not lost yet. I recalled another branch located in St. Marks road and asked if visiting that one would help. Unfortunately, no. That particular branch was for "specialized personal banking" whereas I needed a "general branch". The nearest one was a good 10 Km away. I later found that "general branch" is a vaguely defined concept; the "advanced options" section of SBI's Branch Locator does not include it among the more than a dozen 'branch type' options listed.

With that I gave up on SBI. Fortunately my friend had an account with Indian Bank. IB was a little more forthcoming with information about their branches. I located the nearest one and went over. I found the printed pay-in slip a bit confusing in spite of instructions written in three languages. Luckily one of the employees hinted that what mattered was the inclusion of relevant information in the form; the "where" did not matter. So I filled up the form as best as I could and paid the money.

This episode left me with some questions.
  • What is "core banking"? Does it exclude paying in money to accounts established in other states/cities/branches, especially in this day and age when all banks are touting their internet facilities?
  • Why does a national bank with vast outreach make depositing money to a non-local account so difficult? Particularly in cities like Bangalore where a significant percentage of inhabitants are from other states.
  • Who designs the pay-in slips used in banks? I feel that at least some of them need to be redesigned to make them easier to use. Something akin to usability in software applied to banking.