The major from the Artillery, stood leaning against the wall, slightly stooped, the walking stick in one hand, his hand slightly shaking. His bearing; still upright for his age, gave him away as an Army man that he was. This was the National Defense Saving Center in DHA Lahore. The major had been waiting for his turn for over three hours. The place seemed overflowing, with mostly old, sick people. Mostly alone, some younger faces sprinkled within, accompanying their parents or grandparents. It was the first time I had been there. The major told me many incidents of the 1971 war-then vehemently, as if out of the blue he said, eyes watering, “For a life given to my country, I stand insulted today. Here, almost like a beggar, waiting for hours for alms, which is my right.; profit of my hard earned money.” Before I could think of a suitable reply, an elderly lady standing next to me turned to me desperately, “I have a urine bag fitted, and I cannot keep on waiting here. It will fill soon. It will have to be changed.” She too, had been waiting there for some hours. My breath caught in my throat. I explained the situation to them. The staff was helpful. The lady was promptly paid the money speeding up the necessary procedure.
The National Defense Saving Centre in DHA Lahore is made with supreme indifference to the fact that an overwhelming majority of its customers are old; very old, sick, unwell, suffering from all kinds of physical problems. The seating area is completely inadequate for the number of people coming in. The chairs were taken; every inch of standing area of the small center was taken. No movement was possible without bumping into someone else, or stepping on toes. Many women sat on the lower two steps of a spiral staircase. I shuddered to think how uncomfortable it must be in summers. There are no water facilities. There is one bathroom, on the top floor. “But how can these old people walk up these winding stairs? I wondered. They find it difficult taking the three steps up to the entrance of the center.” Says an elderly gentleman with a laugh, “there is a mosque nearby, men can go there.”I wish I could have joined him in that laugh but I had a nasty feeling he was laughing at himself, in anger and frustration making fun of himself, the frailness of his body and his helplessness to do anything about his situation, shifting his weight off from one foot to another, furtively looking for an empty chair to sit on and finding none, back to shifting weight from one foot to another.
The procedure of drawing profits from dividends is fairly simple. Once there, investors are given a token with a number. Then they wait. I was told, tokens are given out till 1pm on a normal working day, the queues are long and people too many for the small staff of six that I saw. The officer giving out the token is also responsible for taking the cheques for profits. Most of the time, investors do not calculate or even know how to calculate the amounts due. The officer calculates the amounts, fills out the cheques. The investors have to sign or put a thumb impression as the case may be. In many cases, people come armed with as many as ten certificates. This of course, takes that much more time to calculate.
In the meanwhile the line behind the investor at the counter continues to increase. The line moves slowly as there is only one officer looking at the cheques. There are others who need to have new cheque books issued. It is the same officer who checks the data and authorizes issuance. I saw him multitasking. A tough call as only partial work is being done through the computer and the rest manually. Another officer is responsible for making them out. The third officer, whom I took for a clerk, is the manager of the branch. One of the investor tells me he is always working with the staff every day. “There are just not enough people behind that counter to handle the traffic.” I’m told. Unfortunately, it’s the elderly coming in, some once in six months, and some monthly as they survive on this savings - who suffer. After many grueling hours of waiting, comes the turn of an investor to present his cheque to the officer concerned. Duly processed, the investor moves to the cashier. There is more agony lying in wait here. The center boasts of only one cashier. A double line is formed. One for the women, the other for men. The cashier, acting judiciously, attends to one man, then one woman and back and forth. The cash is counted twice. First, by the cashier before handing it over and then of course by the investor. Each person takes time, the line moves at a snail’s pace and the queue lengthens with time.
The quiet resignation of the investors startled me. The staff was polite and did all they could to help quicken the pace - the fact remains; as even a blind person could see; they are hopelessly understaffed. Ideally, another center; bigger, with greater seating and bathroom facilities is desperately needed in DHA Lahore. Some of the investors present told me that this particular center is the only one in the entire Defence area. Hence the load of the area falls upon this one center, not fair either to the staff or the customers. One outlet to deal with the entire DHA area is woefully inadequate. In any case, this center is too small to seat extra staff. It also does not have the space to seat extra people; a desperate need.
What the government needs to understand is that the customers here are not young people. These centers cannot be treated as ordinary banks. These centers are catering for the elderly. Let the surroundings acknowledge and reflect that fact. Though the staff is efficient and courteous in spite of having to face this rush day in and day out, it’s simply inadequate to deal with the quantum of people visiting daily. Some days are worse; if that possible. I was told dates from the first to the fifth of every month are extremely heavy in term of turnover.
Mostly, its people having invested in government bonds for their old age, this in turn means, and most saving centers stand witness to the fact that it is the elderly visiting these outlets to withdraw money to live upon. Centers must be so designed to offer convenience to their visitors. Owing to lack of space inside, I saw many of those who had accompanied the elders waiting indefinitely in the biting cold, outside of the center.
The government may like to implement a programme for national defense saving centers nationwide; allowing the elderly people to make a power of attorney in favor of another to draw monies on their behalf only(not cashing the securities). In case of the latter, when the investments gain maturity, a special power of attorney to be drawn up, to execute the same. Even in case of a power of attorney allowing another to draw profits, the time period of this can be restricted, let’s say; to a year. After which a fresh power of attorney can be submitted. What is facility will do; is to allow a huge convenience to the elders, many of whom are physically handicapped and ailing from undergoing the punishing exercise.
The writer is a lawyer, academic and political analyst. She has authored a book titled A Comparative Analysis of Media & Media Laws in Pakistan.