By Afshan Subohi
Mr Badruddin, 70, an ex serviceman, struggled not to lean on a person sitting next to him as he adjusted himself on his chair. Neatly dressed, the senior citizen looked nervous, holding his leather pouch tight. He told Dawn that he was trying to avoid going to the rest room as he was expecting his name call and did not want to miss it.
This medium sized dimly lit room was filled to capacity. There were two queues: One in the front before the glassed counter and the other at the back in front of men’s room. The mean age of those in the room should be anywhere between 65 to 75.
This was not an OPD of geriatric ward of some clinic. This was National Saving Centre branch in the posh Defence area in Karachi. Barduddin said he dreaded coming to the centre to get profit on his investment for it is too strenuous an exercise for a person of his age. He said that Rs50,00,000 investment in ‘Behbud’, (a monthly return scheme for senior citizens), supplements his pension and minimises his dependence on his boys settled abroad. For some reason he felt the need to tell where he got the money from. “The house I built 35 years back was for the whole family and not just for me and my wife. When children decided to migrate I sold the house and moved to a smaller manageable flat. I invested the left-over sale proceeds in NSS. Health care and cost of living is too high to be managed by pension alone”, the gentleman said.
Despite the long wait of about four hours at the centre, Badruddin was sympathetic towards staff of the branch who, he felt, were overburdened.
At another branch of National Saving Centre in the old city area of Karachi, the scene was rather chaotic. The room was smaller, hot, crowded and noisy. Women clad in chaddars and veils with children hanging along outnumbered men.
A burqa clad lady told Dawn that it was her third visit to the centre still her chances of succeeding in getting profit were not too bright. She reached the centre late and had to return home before noon, the time when her children return from school. She said with two under school age children and no one back home to tend to chores it was very hard for her to get the profit. “My husband can get it the same day but he has to miss work which is not always possible”, Zaitoon added.
For commoners, the government schemes have proved to be an attractive avenue of investment because of steady returns and minimal risk. For government, it has been a most dependable, comparatively cheaper mode of domestic borrowing and the least damaging. Leaning on the central bank to bridge the government resource gap create more imperfections.
When the government needs to borrow and the citizens are inclined to invest in its savings schemes, the institution handling the business should have been a model financial organisation.
As narrated in the opening paragraphs, the Central Directorate of National Savings is far from being ideal even if the issue of rates being offered are set aside. “It (CDNS) is among the most neglected organisations working under the all powerful and seemingly most mixed up ministry of finance”, said a retired CDNS employee.
Currently when the government is in financial distress and evaluating all options to raise resources needed to dodge defaults and meet budgetary requirements, the ministry of finance, should have been strengthening CDNS to meet the challenge. “The ministry gave us targets but ignored the institution,” an officer in Karachi grumbled.
A member of the Shaukat Tareen Committee of experts of the ministry of finance that has been meeting at regular intervals told Dawn that public debt, its size and composition have been discussed but saving schemes or the status of CDNS never came up for discussion.
The CDNS on Thursday last revised upward rates on different schemes to be effective from October 1, to retain old investors and attract new ones to realise an ambitious target of net inflow of Rs150 billion set for 2008.
“Last year we surpassed the initial target of Rs43 billion that was later revised to Rs80 billion. The CDNS achieved net collection of Rs87 billion during the year. This year the government escalated the target steeply to Rs150 billion. We are trying to meet the target by introducing new short- term schemes despite multiple organisational issues”, Zafar Sheikh, Director General CDNS told Dawn from Islamabad.
Some senior members of the organisation and staff of branches visited in Karachi gave out a long list of pending problems faced by the CDNS staff. “Most staffers are on the edge. Had there been jobs in the market each one of us would have left long time back. We are made to work like donkeys under immense stress. There are at least ten people prodding while we make entries in giant registers and calculate profits for clients”, said a disgruntled officer at a branch. The average strength of staff at one branch is seven who handle up to 400 cases in busy branches.
“After the revision in the rates most investors withdrew and reinvested their funds to avail benefit of the new rates. You cannot imagine the pressure of work we were made to handle. We had to stay late despite Ramadan to update records. I will not be surprised if later some blunder would be detected. There is a limit beyond which anybody would go bonkers”, said a manager of another branch in Karachi.
Many staffers of CDNS blamed their officers for their plight. “The recently held series of investment meeting to shore up accounts and analyse reasons of withdrawals were focused on targets that have to be achieved but no one discussed the present or the future of the overworked, under paid staff of the organisation that delivers both for the government and for its client base”, another officer from Karachi confided.
“When hundreds of millions of rupees are handled manually there is possibility of grave mistakes. Currently CDNS is not exposed to external audits. It is humanly impossible to manage the current size of account holders without automation”, said a regional head who wished not to be named. In all there are twelve regions and several dozen branches all over the country.
The staff strength of the organisation has been frozen for the last 25 years. “Over this period the total funds handled multiplied many times from Rs25-30 billion back in 1984; today total stocks of CDNS stand at 1.157 trillion. Not only this, there are various new schemes with periodical returns that has further increased the workload on our staff”, Afzal Tahir Bajwa, Director Schemes told this scribe from Islamabad.
A half-hearted attempt was made a few years back and computer stations were installed in some branches in the name of gradually introducing automation. “The system failed. It was a non-starter from the word go” a staffer at a branch said. The seniors in Islamabad and Karachi believe that nothing less than creation of a full fledged IT department with a capacity to develop suitable software should even be attempted.
Dr Zafar said that some headway has been made in this regard and a director IT has been recruited to start with.
When approached the officers responsible in the ministry of finance were not prepared to comment on the situation. The post of the joint secretary who is supposed to be supervising the affairs of CDNS is lying vacant since the retirement of the last officer months back. The lady deputy secretary when reached in Islamabad over phone insisted that all matter concerning CDNS are in the knowledge of the ministry and ‘the work to resolve issues is in progress’.
“The problems at the CDNS cannot be resolved by the ministry of finance. There is a need for drastic restructuring and creation of a self-sustaining autonomous CDNS”, the same suggestion was repeated at almost all tiers of the organisation.
In this regard, the ground work was being done but the summary was shot down all three times by what many believe officers of the ministry of finance in collusion with all powerful bankers lobby who see the institution as a challenging competitor. “They are control freaks. Even when it is already beyond their control they do not let it go. As for bankers , they like working in a tilted market loaded against depositors. More than interest it is their psyche”, commented an officer of Planning Commission reached for comment.
“The fact is that a powerful attempt was made by interim PM Mohammad Mian Soomro and the summery reached the desk of President Musharraf but the vested interest prevailed over the President to defer it for the next government”, a source in Islamabad said.
The CDNS hierarchy believes that if at all, the proposal will take a long time to materialise; now it will go through proper channel via cabinet to the parliament before anything is decided. “I see nothing happening in 2008”.
Source: Daily Dawn, 29/9/2008