R. Kailasam usually leaves the bank feeling perplexed. “Every time I go to update my passbook, they send me away saying the machine is under repair, or come another time,” he says.

This after he has walked for nearly two hours from his hamlet, Bangalamedu, to reach the bank in K.G. Kandigai town, around five kilometres away. (Until a year ago, a bus service was available for half the distance, but that’s now stopped).

At the bank, his real struggle begins. The K. G. Kandigai branch of Canara Bank in Thiruvallur district of Tamil Nadu has a self-operated machine for passbook entries. Kailasam has never been able to use it. “It doesn’t work for me,” he says.

One morning, when he is talking to me about his banking troubles, a few women sitting on the ground nearby, in the sparse shade of a velikathan tree, join in. “You need a sticker in your book to make entries, thatha [grandpa],” one of them says. They are right: Kailasam’s passbook does not have a barcode, which is necessary for the machine to work. “I don’t know why they did not give a sticker. I don’t understand these things,” he says. The women are also unsure and speculate: “If you get a [ATM] card, you will get sticker,” says one. “You must open new account paying 500 rupees,” says another. “If it is zero account, you won’t get it,” says a third woman. Kailasam remains puzzled.

He is not alone in his banking battles. For many in Bangalamedu, managing their accounts, withdrawing money or tracking their income, is not easy. The hamlet – officially known as Cherukkanur Irular Colony – is a single street in the middle of an open scrubland in Tiruttani block. On either side of the street are tiny huts and a few pucca houses of 35 Irula families. (The community’s name is now usually spelt as Irular in official documents.)

Kailasam, 60, and his wife K. Sanjayamma, 45, live here in a mud shanty with a thatched roof. They own four goats, which Sanjayamma tends to; their four adult children have moved out with their own families. Kailasam, who takes up daily wage work, says, “I have to bend the whole day if I work in fields. I get severe backache and my bones hurt. I prefer eri velai [lake work, as MGNREGA work is referred to] these days.” The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 entitles each rural family to at least 100 days of wage work in a year – it’s rarely available for 100 days though to the Irulas of Bangalamedu.

On R. Kailasam'a visits to the bank, attempts to update his passbook are often unsuccessful; the passbook is his only way to keep track of his money
PHOTO • Smitha Tumuluru
On R. Kailasam'a visits to the bank, attempts to update his passbook are often unsuccessful; the passbook is his only way to keep track of his money
PHOTO • Smitha Tumuluru

On R. Kailasam'a visits to the bank, attempts to update his passbook are often unsuccessful; the passbook is his only way to keep track of his money

The Irulas – listed as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) in Tamil Nadu – depend largely on daily wage work for their income. The men in Bangalamedu take up seasonal jobs on paddy fields, at brick kilns and construction sites, earning 350-400 rupees a day in cash. On days when they cannot find work, they look for edible fruits and tubers in the nearby scrub forest. They also hunt for small animals like rats, rabbits, squirrels and birds for their daily food. (See Digging up buried treasures in Bangalamedu and On a different route with rats in Bangalamedu )

For most of the women in the hamlet, MGNREGA work is the only source of income, apart from seasonal work at brick kilns. (See Bangalamedu: ‘Where are the jobs for women?’ )

For clearing lake-beds, digging pits or planting trees at MGNREGA work sites, the Irulas earn roughly Rs. 175 a day. This money is deposited directly into their bank account.

“If I work this week, I get the money a week after next week,” Kailasam says. He does not know how much he saves at the end of the month: “We need around 500 rupees  a month [for household expenses],” he adds. “Rest is in bank. One time I had 3,000 in the bank which I gave my son to buy something."

To withdraw money at the bank, Kailasam has to fill a form. “They ask me to give a challan . I don’t know how to do it,” he says. Both he and Sanjayamma can’t read or write. “The bank staff tells us that they cannot fill it for us,” he adds. “I just wait for someone to come and request them to do it for me. I don’t draw more than 1,000 rupees whenever I go [once in 2-3 months].”

Among those from whose help he seeks is G. Manigandan. He helps Kailasam with bank-related work, and also guides other Irulas when they apply for documentation like Aadhaar cards or access government schemes and pensions.

Most of the families in the single-steet Bangalamedu hamlet have accounts in a bank branch in K. G. Kandigai town. Right: Manigandan, who runs after-school classes, helps people in the hamlet with their bank-related work
PHOTO • G. Manigandan
Most of the families in the single-steet Bangalamedu hamlet have accounts in a bank branch in K. G. Kandigai town. Right: Manigandan, who runs after-school classes, helps people in the hamlet with their bank-related work
PHOTO • Smitha Tumuluru

Most of the families in the single-steet Bangalamedu hamlet have accounts in a bank branch in K. G. Kandigai town. Right: Manigandan, who runs after-school classes, helps people in the hamlet with their bank-related work

“Whenever I visit [the bank], there are always 5 or 6 people waiting for someone to help them. The challans are in English. I help them out, as I can read a bit of English,” says 36-year-old Manigandan, who dropped out of school in Class 9. He works with a local non-profit organisation that conducts after-school classes for kids. “At first I was afraid I would make mistakes,” he adds. “If we scratch or correct something, they tear it off and we have to re-write in a new sheet.” Over the last few months, the challans have also been available in Tamil

Kailasam’s neighbour Govindammal, 55, who has never been to school, also faces several hurdles while accessing her MGNREGA wages and monthly pension of Rs. 1,000. She is a widow who lives alone; her daughter and two sons live in their own homes in the same hamlet. “I sign with my thumbprint. So they [the bank staff] ask me to get a witness signature to submit my challan . I usually ask the person who fills that form if they can sign it too,” she says.

The person who fills the challan is also required to mention their own account number. Manigandan recollects an incident with a laugh: “I once signed as witness for someone and wrote my account number. The bank deducted money from my account instead. Luckily, they noticed the error and I got the money back.”

For his own bank work, Manigandan uses an ATM card, choosing Tamil on the screen as the language of transaction. He got the card three years ago, but it took him a while to get used to it. “It took me 20 tries in the beginning to understand how to withdraw money and check my account balance.”

Why do Kailasam or Govindammal not use an ATM card? Manigandan says ATM cards are not given to those who are kai naattu who sign with their thumbs . The branch manager of Canara Bank in K.G. Kandigai town, B. Lingamaiah, however says that while that was indeed the case earlier, the bank now issues ATM cards to anyone who applies for it. “Doesn’t matter if it is a Jan Dhan [account] or if they use thumbprint,” he says. But many in Bangalamedu are not aware of this facility.

The bank has set up a small unit in Cherukkanur panchayat village
PHOTO • Smitha Tumuluru

The bank has set up a small unit in Cherukkanur panchayat village

'I sign with my thumbprint. So they [the bank staff] ask me to get a witness signature to submit my challan . I usually ask the person who fills that form if they can sign it too', says Govindammal

To make access to banking easier, Canara Bank has set up an ‘ultra small branch’ in Cherukkanur, a three-kilometre walk from Bangalamedu. This ‘mini bank’, as people here call it, is essentially one person hired on contract and commission – a business correspondent (BC) who helps customers check their account balance and withdraw or deposit cash, using a biometric device.

E. Krishnadevi, 42, the BC, connects a portable biometric device to the internet with her phone. She then types the customer’s Aadhaar number. The device reads their fingerprint and approves the transaction. She says, “Their Aadhaar must be linked to the bank account. I keep cash in hand.” She has to settle the day’s accounts with the bank by 3:30 p.m.

But those who have trouble registering their fingerprint, don’t have Aadhaar cards, or want to update their passbooks, have to still go to the bank’s bank at K. G. Kandigai.

“Sometimes she [BC] says her cash is over. She gives us a slip and tells us to come to her house to collect our money later or the next day. Then we go again,” says Govindammal, who sets out for Cherukkanur with a few friends, walking three kilometres along the edge of the local lake. “We wait outside the office. If she doesn’t come, we go to her house.”

Usually, BCs operate from their homes. But Krishnadevi sits in an old and unused library between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. On days when there are cash disbursements for MGNREGA or pensions, she stays there longer. Apart from those hours, she insists that she is available any time of day. “People who are out working come and visit me at home,” she says.

Once a week, on Tuesdays, Krishnadevi takes her biometric device to K.G. Kandigai’s main branch. The BCs from four other panchayats take turns to do the same on other days of the week. The device remains available on all weekdays, until around 2 p.m., for customers who want to use their Aadhaar cards to transact. Kailasam, however, mistakenly thinks he can access the device at K.G. Kandigai only on Tuesdays. “That is when the BC from Cherukkanur comes there,” he says.

The ‘mini bank’ is one person – in Cherukkanur, it's Krishnadevi, who helps customers check their account balance and withdraw or deposit cash, using a biometric device Right: S. Sumathi, who runs a small shop in her one-room house, was stunned when she learnt about the overdraft facility
PHOTO • G. Manigandan
The ‘mini bank’ is one person – in Cherukkanur, it's Krishnadevi, who helps customers check their account balance and withdraw or deposit cash, using a biometric device Right: S. Sumathi, who runs a small shop in her one-room house, was stunned when she learnt about the overdraft facility
PHOTO • G. Manigandan

The ‘mini bank’ is one person – in Cherukkanur, it's Krishnadevi, who helps customers check their account balance and withdraw or deposit cash, using a biometric device Right: S. Sumathi, who runs a small shop in her one-room house, was stunned when she learnt about the overdraft facility

Like Kailasam, most Irula families have accounts in Canara Bank – it was the only bank here for around a decade. (A couple of years ago, Andhra Bank set up a branch in K. G. Kandigai, and there are now ATMs of four different banks in that town). While some have regular savings accounts, others open ‘zero balance’ or Jan Dhan accounts that do not need a minimum balance.

However, many people I spoke to said they were asked to keep some money in the zero balance accounts too. Govindammal, who has such an account, says, “At K. G. Kandigai, they always tell me to leave some money there, at least 500-1,000 rupees. Only then eri velai [MGNREGA work] money comes. That’s why I go to Cherukkanur [the mini bank]. There I leave only 200-300 rupees in the account.”

Towards the end of 2020, when I discussed this with K. Prashanth, the then manager of the K.G. Kandigai branch, he clarified that Jan Dhan accounts did not require a minimum balance. “If they require a KYC compliant account with all kinds of transactions, they have to open a regular account which requires a minimum balance of Rs 500,” he said.

However, B. Lingamaiah, the current manager, admits that while Jan Dhan account holders need not maintain a minimum balance, bank staff do urge them otherwise. And he says that unless one specifically asks for a Jan Dhan or zero balance account, the bank opens a regular account by default.

Govindammal points to another problem. “At first, they [the bank] said I don’t need to pay for the account, now every year they take 500 or 1000. I always find less money than expected in the bank,” she says.

K. Prashanth attributed this confusion to the overdraft facilities which are provided at a fee, even to Jan Dhan accounts. “Suppose they [account holders] have Rs. 2,000 left in the account and try to take out Rs. 3,000, the system allows some of them to withdraw that sum. The difference of Rs. 1,000 is adjusted when there is a new deposit. It looks like they are not aware they are using it.”
R. Vanaja with M. Ankamma and her child. In 2020, Vanaja and her husband R. Johnson (right) , lost money from their account in a phone scam
PHOTO • Smitha Tumuluru
R. Vanaja with M. Ankamma and her child. In 2020, Vanaja and her husband R. Johnson (right) , lost money from their account in a phone scam
PHOTO • G. Manigandan

R. Vanaja with M. Ankamma and her child. In 2020, Vanaja and her husband R. Johnson (right) , lost money from their account in a phone scam

S. Sumathi, 28, who lives across the street from Govindammal’s house, was stunned when she learnt about the overdraft facility last year: “Someone could’ve explained this to us. We thought the bank was taking our money.”

Money is lost in an SMS service too, for which the bank collects Rs. 18 per quarter. But not everybody here has phones, and when people run out of balance they are unable to receive a messages. And SMSes are sent only when they withdraw cash, says Sumathi. “Why don’t they send us SMS when they deposit money into our account? It would save us so much trouble.”

There are other challenges too in handling the increased digitisation. In November 2020, Manigandan’s nephew R. Johnson, 23, lost Rs. 1,500 to a fraudster. His 22-year-old wife R. Vanaja’s bank account had Rs. 2,000, saved from their MGNREGA wages. Johnson disclosed Vanaja’s card details – the only bank account the couple has – to an unknown caller posing as a bank employee. “He sounded just like the officer at the bank. He said that the card got locked and I had to give him the number to unlock it. I gave him all the numbers I knew. Secret number [OTP] too. We were left with just 500 rupees,” he says.

The caller also convinced Johnson to share his uncle Manigandan’s card details in order to “unlock” Johnson’s card. The bank alerted Manigandan about multiple suspect transactions. By then, he had lost Rs. 17,000 – part of the sum he had recently secured to construct a new house under a housing scheme.

Johnson and other Irulas continue to struggle to find their way through a digital world and banking system that does not make space for their specific concerns. And Kailasam’s passbook still needs to be updated. But he is relieved about something: “There are no challans to fill while using the kai regai [biometric] machine.”

Smitha Tumuluru

Smitha Tumuluru is a documentary photographer based in Bengaluru. Her prior work on development projects in Tamil Nadu informs her reporting and documenting of rural lives.

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