Madhu Krishnan will never forget the tough time he had gone through during the last week of October.
His mother fell ill on October 25 and, as he was preparing to take her to a hospital, he realised that his wallet was almost empty. It would not have been enough to pay even the ambulance rent.
That was the second day of the three consecutive bank holidays. Madhu had accounts in both the banks in Belloor – Kerala Gramin Bank and the Belloor Service Co-Operative Bank. However, they have not installed automated teller machines (ATM) so far.
Time being a crucial factor in such a scenario, Madhu dialled his friends and relatives who, he thought, could provide him with emergency financial aid.
When his attempts failed, he asked a friend to drive 12 kilometres to Ishwaramangala in the neighbouring State of Karnataka and withdraw money. The events delayed his mother’s hospital admission by one hour. Luckily, she survived.
Such incidents are common in Belloor, the hilly gram panchayat in Kasaragod that lies 35 kilometres east of the district headquarters and shares its borders with Karnataka.
Unavailability of instant cash delayed medical attention to snake-bite victims – snakes are abundant here – and children who needed emergency medical care many times in the past.
The problems could have been avoided had one of the two banks heeded people's demand and installed an ATM, says Rajagopala Kaipangala, an entrepreneur and social worker in Belloor, who has brought the issue to the attention of bank officials, bureaucrats and people’s representatives. “My attempts have not yielded any result so far. But I am continuing my fight,” he said.
Residents say Belloor may be the only gram panchayat in Kerala without an ATM.
Around 13,000 people live in the panchayat. A majority of them are farmers. Unavailability of an ATM denies them the benefits of digital banking, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been exhorting people to embrace.
Ironically, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party ruled the gram panchayat between 2015 and 2020.
Nearest ATMs 15km away
To tide over the trouble, some Bellloor residents have opened accounts with banks, both in Kerala and Karnataka.
This helps them withdraw money all the time from the ATMs in Mulleria, Perla or Badiyaduka on the Kerala side and Arla Padavu and Ishwaramangala in Karnataka. But they have to travel a minimum of 15km.
ATM money withdrawal has thus become a costly affair. “I travel on my own to withdraw money. Petrol doesn’t come cheap these days,” said Anil, who runs a mobile shop in Belloor.
Social worker Rajagopala said an ATM would have reduced the rush at both the banks in Belloor. “Long queues can be seen in both the banks to withdraw money on paydays and during the disbursal of welfare funds by both the governments,” he said.
Outgoing gram panchayat president and BJP leader M Latha said she wrote to the banks requesting to set up an ATM many times during her tenure. “However, they have not responded to my letters,” she said.
She said the demand for an ATM has strengthened in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant lockdown. “People have been asked to limit their travels. So Belloor should get an ATM soon,” she said.
No ATM soon
Despite the growing clamour, Belloor may have to live without an ATM for some more time as banks have no immediate plans to install a machine.
Belloor Service Co-operative Bank president Subrahmanya Kadambalithaya said his bank has plans for an ATM only in the next fiscal. “We are not performing well now because of COVID-19,” he said.
Kerala Gramin Bank’s Belloor branch manager N Jayakumar said his bank too will not set up an ATM this fiscal. “Instead, we will appoint business correspondents at Belloor. People can withdraw money from them. This will ease people’s woes,” he said.
Rajagopala felt that business correspondence can never replace the ATMs. “Prime Minister Modi is exhorting people to go digital. But the banks are resorting to the old mode of financial transactions.”
Will the ATM be an issue in the upcoming gram panchayat election? Opinion appears to be divided.
Mobile shop owner Anil says many people will raise the issue this time. “My friends and relatives are planning to ask political parties to pressurise banks. We will vote for those who support us,” he said.
However, Rajagopala says demand for an ATM will not figure in the local body polls. “This issue has been there for a long time. So I don’t think parties and people will care for it.”