Field Notes: The Rs 330-Debit That Revealed A Sprawling, Illegal Government-Run Fraud


“Kya bataayein aapko! Khud hamaare hi accounts se paise kat rakhe hain in schemes ke liye.” (What do I tell you! Our own accounts have been charged for these schemes.)

My ears perked up when the bank officer in my State Bank of India (SBI) branch made this candid statement to a disgruntled customer.

Obviously, I wasn’t the only one with a problem.

It was a hot 2022 summer afternoon in Dehradun when I went to my branch with a written request to stop money being deducted from my savings bank account for the Prime Minister’s life insurance scheme. The scheme offers a payment of Rs 200,000 on death with an annual premium of Rs 330. (The premium has since been revised to Rs 436.)

I had not signed up for it, and I presumed the Rs 330 had been withdrawn from my account because of a glitch.

I realised the person just ahead of me in the queue had the same complaint. As we got talking, the bank officer sitting across the counter chimed in, resentfully saying money had been deducted from his own salary account as a subscription for this scheme, even though he had not applied for it. 

This struck me as being very odd indeed. 

How, I wondered, could a bank take money from people’s accounts without their consent? Wasn’t this the antithesis of what they were supposed to do: safeguard our money? 

It wasn’t a question of a Rs-330 loss to me. It was done without my consent. It was illegal.

Besides, if you added it all up—Rs 330 deducted from thousands, maybe millions, of customers—the sum climbed to hundreds of crores. 

Was it happening to others as well?

I got curious and turned to the internet. Soon, I discovered a flood of complaints from bitter customers and hapless bank employees, who lamented how they were being forced to cheat customers to meet enrolment targets.

I began reaching out to these people on Twitter and soon learnt about the various ways through which banks were imposing not just this but also other schemes, such as accident insurance and micro-pensions. 

I recall in particular the story of a young man from Vadodara, Gujarat. His story revealed the hardships that people were being made to face for no reason.

The young man told me he was a partner with the food-delivery company Swiggy and time, for him, was money. Every minute counted. He told me over a phone call in June 2022 how he had to visit Canara Bank and Bank of Baroda branches in between making food deliveries to unsubscribe from both life- and accident-insurance schemes.

He had accounts in both banks and, so, was charged twice over without consent. One day, he rushed to his Canara Bank branch after accepting a delivery order. A few days later, he did the same at the Bank of Baroda branch. 

Even so, he said, the staff at Bank of Baroda gave him the runaround, telling him that the bank’s servers were down and that he should come after a month.

He told me that he and his brother pooled in money for their family’s expenses, and that an unplanned debit could lead to the bank bouncing a monthly repayment. He complained of having to spend time visiting banks when he should have been making deliveries and earning money.

A man from Odisha who ran a small business told me that his SBI branch froze his company’s account and refused to make it operative until he paid up for insurance. Once it was frozen, he could neither make nor receive payments. His branch manager effectively held his business to ransom to force him to sign up for the insurance.

On the other end of the spectrum were bank employees. 

Such was their frustration at having to commit fraud that they came forth with evidence when I posted on Twitter that I was reporting this story and was looking for proof. It came soon enough. 

The screenshot you see above was shared with me by a Bank of Baroda employee from Karnataka. It shows emails issued between December 2022 and February 2023 with details of customers and orders to branches to enrol them—without asking them, of course—for the Prime Minister’s schemes.

Many other bank employees gave me not only the evidence on which I based the story but also some food for thought: How come this widespread fraud is going undetected—as I write this, the illegal deductions continue—despite the checks and balances that bind an entity regulated by the Reserve Bank of India? 

It is a slippery slope when trust is lost in the institution meant to protect you.

You can read Hemant Gairola’s full story here.

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