In a frightfully busy part of Phase 5, in Defence Housing Society of Karachi, known as Khadda Market, in a one-way street where you can’t get parking, is a place which has a signboard that says Qaumi Bachat which, translated into English, means national savings. The entrance is through a plastic-coated door guarded by a scruffy looking chap with a shotgun. You can’t miss it. It is directly opposite a vegetable seller and a shop where they sell chickens. The smell from the chicken shop is at times so fetid that customers, mostly women, have to cover their noses with scented handkerchiefs. The National Savings Centre in Khadda Market, which is part of a large network of outlets dotted all over the country and operated by the government, is not a bank, though it performs some of the functions of a bank, such as accepting an investment and offering a rate of interest which is usually higher than what is offered by the commercial banks. The problem is that your money is locked for a specific period and the fine is pretty stiff, should you decide to cash in before the specified period.
I have been going to this institution for the last 30 years or so, initially to invest in Defence Savings Certificates and Special Savings Certificates and later in Behbud — which was being offered to senior citizens. When it came to seating, it was customary for men and women to part like the Red Sea, unless there is a husband and wife team or a woman has brought her son. In the days before the installation of air conditioning, we were at the mercy of KESC and prayed that the fans fixed on the walls wouldn’t stop whirring. Long experience taught me which days to go there and which days to avoid. Mondays were the worst. People would queue up at 7:30am to collect their numbered tokens and return later to transact their business. Even then it took some time before they collected their money. Wednesdays and Thursdays were the best. On those days it didn’t take more than 90 minutes.
Most of the customers were senior citizens. Some stared endlessly into the distance, some took a nap, some, the grumps who came with their wives, argued incessantly on some point or the other. On the occasions I had forgotten to bring a book I struck up a conversation with the chap sitting next to me. The opening line was invariably “What number did you pull?” This was followed by “Isn’t it time they computerised the system. It shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes?” Every now and then the teller would call out a name, and a temporary hush would descend on the room. The person to whom the name belonged knew he is in close-up, would react with a little cameo, saunter up to the barred window with a gap at the bottom, receive the banknotes and their documents which the teller shoved through and depart.
To the best of my knowledge, the National Savings Scheme introduced by the Pakistan Government, initiated by the British long before Partition, was offering the highest returns of similar schemes offered in other parts of the world. During the years of high interest rates, the returns were quite substantial and lots of war widows and senior citizens benefited from their existence. Over the years, however, there has been a gradual downward slide due to falling interest rates which has caused increasing hardship to those who have benefited from this scheme. But they still hang on. Where else can they go? With rising prices and falling incomes, things are getting tougher by the day. But I still try to keep a stiff upper lip and hope conditions will improve.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 6th, 2016.
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