The demise of the cheque book

The cheque book is soon to become extinct as electronic payments are on the rise – and not everyone is happy

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Recently I received a letter from two banks, differing in texts but essentially conveying the same news. No April Fool’s prank.

They are chucking out cheque books from their suit of services – which are declining with each passing day, inversely proportional to their rising profits.

Most millennials perhaps don’t even know what a cheque book is. Google it, kids, to learn what one looks like and how it moves money. But that’s not going to help you to fathom the great delight this little book brought to people of my generation, even though it is lately having a chequered career.

The cheque book, in its heydays, made the world go round. It originated in London, evolving from letters written to banks by creditors to make payments on their behalf, to third parties. It took its name from the word exchequer, meaning government treasury.

The early cheque book, bearing the issuing bank’s name and other brief details, appeared as far back as the 1750s. The personalised version – with customer’s name – came in 1811. Only people with sizeable assets getting this privilege, it would have been a status symbol back then.

The first time I ever saw one was in the 1960s, when a relative from the US had a Chase Manhattan cheque book with his name on every leaf. Innocently, or rather ignorantly, I figured he was a topnotch client of that Rockefeller-controlled money pit.

Even as late as the 1970s when I left India, I had not seen cheque books with customers’ names pre-printed. I don’t know if Indian banks now lure customers with personalised ones. It may be too late to turn a new leaf as the handy book may soon go the way as dodo.

Will the appearance of the term ‘cheque book’ in common parlance continue? People with ‘fat cheque books’ for instance are viewed as wielding unchecked influence over people in power. The death of cheque books will herald the demise of pet phrases like ‘cheque book journalism’ and ‘the cheque is in the mail’, a well-worn line used when reminded of unpaid bills. (Now the mail service itself is facing The Last Post.)

Oddly enough, while cheque books are walking out the check-out into oblivion, in India, trumpeted as digital nirvana, some firms are trying to take us backwards, linking in time to the dark ages. Recently I received a message from a share registry firm to send them an ‘original cancelled cheque leaf’ to transfer a small parcel of shares to electronic format. How many people in this digital era safe-keep a cancelled cheque! Even after a whole year this firm hasn’t completed a process that should take minutes. The official slogan “doing business in India is easy” sounds more hollow than honest.

Our banks’ move to bounce cheque books out after shepherding customers to net banking, highlighting its speed and security, has a sinister motive. Printing and posting personalised cheque books to thousands of customers must be costing them heaps. Now all those savings will become bonus for the big boys (and girls) – you can bank on it.

How many customers realise the much-lauded online banking costs them a bundle? In order to indulge in this exercise, one has to have a computer and/or a mobile phone costing a few hundreds, and an internet connection of $ 50-100 a month. Those preferring hard copies, fearing computer crashes, need a printer, ink cartridges, paper etc, draining a few more hundreds. Even if you mail out many bills a month by cheques, it may cost a fraction of the on-line assault. Those who pay only a few bills every quarter like council rates and utilities, can’t avoid this burden since cash is no more welcome and, with cheque books ceasing, electronic entrapment is inescapable.

So folks, we’re all checkmated.

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