SUCHETA DALAL | 12/03/2013 , Monelylife, Exclusive
In a mockery of RBI‘s independence, a lowly under-secretary of Dept. of Financial Services has issued a fatwa to government banks to penalise you if you pay your credit cards due by cheque! The under-secretary got this idea from HDFC Bank!
Nearly a month after Moneylife Foundation discovered and took up the issue of the Reserve Bank of India‘s (RBI) bizarre idea of penalising bank depositors for using cheques, we find that the idea or rather the fatwa to this effect had emanated from the finance ministry as far back as 25 October 2012 at the possibly at the instigation of India‘s most profitable bank.
On 25 October 2012, DD Maheshwari, Under Secretary in the Department of Financial Services sent out a fatwa marked “most immediate” to all chief executives of public sector banks (PSBs). The burden of this two-paragraph diktat was that “to discourage the use of physical/cash mode of transactions, all public sector banks are requested to consider charging a processing fee from the customer paying credit card dues either in cash or through cheque”. HDFC Bank has recently increased such charges from Rs50 to Rs100 per transaction and has sent a communication to its customers in compliance with the regulatory requirement of giving a month’s notice.
It doesn’t stop at that, after holding up HDFC Bank’s usurious charges as a role model for PSBs, the letter asks them to “consider issuing appropriate instructions in this regard” and send a “copy of the instructions” back to the finance ministry.
The finance ministry may have used the word ‘consider’, but its insistence that banks must report back to it shows that it is an order and various banks are planning to fall in line. The finance ministry’s fatwa makes a mockery of the RBI’s pretence that it is an independent regulator of banks, because the government has not even bothered to refer this issue to the central bank before issuing orders on what amounts to micro-management of bank charges.
RBI deputy governor Dr KC Chakrabarty has repeatedly exhorted customers to vote with their feet and move to another bank if they dislike the high costs and charges of foreign and private banks. It now appears that the finance ministry will forcefully intervene to ensure that they do not have PSBs to turn to.
The government, as owner of PSBs obviously feels it is within its rights to dictate charges, since it is coughing up vast sums of taxpayers money for bank recapitalisation (Rs14,000 crore is set to be pumped into PSBs for their recapitalisation just now). But instead of ensuring better loan recoveries from dubious industrialists such as Vijay Mallya of the UB group, realty companies and others, who owe tens of thousand crores to banks in bad loans, the government has hit upon the idea of punishing legitimate and tax paying bank customers with new charges.
It gets worse. The RBI, which has been lamenting that a large part of the Indian population is unbanked, then responds by setting up an internal committee to prepare a paper titled “Disincentivising Issuance and Usage of Cheques”. This was put up on its website and open for public comment until 28th February. The report itself was kept low-key and been ignored by the mainstream media almost entirely. Moneylife had then pointed out that the plan to levy a series of punitive charges on the use of cheques, with the utopian objective of forcing people to use online money transfer facilities (such as NEFT and RTGS which are also charged) only punishes those with legitimate bank customers. Please read RBI Must Scrap No Cheque Idea, which is the most commented article in Moneylife since then.
Moneylife Foundation, which has over 21,000 members has sent a detailed memorandum to the RBI on behalf of depositors.
A senior banker who writes for Moneylife under the pseudonym Gurpur also said that the RBI report on Dis-incentivising Issuance and Usage of Cheques “is a classic example of putting the cart before the horse. Because there are problems galore in the electronic payment system, and even before stabilising this, the RBI wants to dispense with the cheque system”. See Incentivise usage of electronic payment systems before dis-incentivising usage of cheques. Gurpur followed it up with another article that pointed out how the UK had bowed to public pressure given up the idea of abolishing cheque usage. See UK govt bows to public pressure-rejects abolition of cheque system. Will RBI follow suit?
Moneylife had said, “The report on stopping the use of cheques makes you wonder whether RBI is accountable to us or exists solely to help banks enhance profits at the cost of customers, under the guise of seemingly lofty objectives”. Ironically, the finance ministry’s order makes it clear that it swings to the tune HDFC Bank.