Explained: Why are a million public sector bank employees on a two-day strike?

For two days, December 16-17, banking operations at public sector banks across the country will be affected as their employees have gone on a strike in protest against the Indian government’s move to privatise these banks. Why are they against privatisation? Read on to know more.

Arvind Shukla
| Updated: December 16th, 2021

Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh

Agitating against the central government’s plan to privatise public sector banks, about a million PSU bank employees across the country have launched a two-day strike beginning today, on December 16, and will continue till tomorrow.

The United Forum of Bank Unions (UFBU), an umbrella body of bank unions across the country, has called for the strike and alleged that not only will the move to privatise the public sector banks be detrimental to the employees and their families but will also have a negative impact on the rural citizens for whom the banking services would get costlier.

Members unions of the UFBU  include the All India Bank Employees Association (AIBEA), All India Bank Officers’ Confederation (AIBOC), National Confederation of Bank Employees (NCBE), All India Bank Officers’ Association (AIBOA), Bank Employees Confederation of India (BEFI), Indian National Bank Employees Federation (INBEF), Indian National Bank Officers Congress (INBOC), National Organisation of Bank Workers (NOBW), and National Organisation of Bank Officers (NOBO).

The Union government, while presenting its Budget for the 2021-22 had announced its intent to privatise the public sector banks.

“People have trust in public sector banks. Since independence, many private banks have risen and sunk but PSBs (public sector banks) have been consistent,” Pawan Kumar, senior vice president, All India Bank Officers Confederation told Gaon Connection in Lucknow today. Kumar is amongst thousands of protesters who participated in a demonstration in the Uttar Pradesh capital today.

“If the government doesn’t drop its intention to privatise the banks, we will launch an indefinite strike and launch a mass-movement to inform people about the government’s intention,” Pawan Kumar added.

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The senior vice president went on to add that the corporates were eyeing the money deposited in PSU banks and the government wanted to benefit the corporates by privatising them. “By now, we are all aware that nothing short of losing votes scares this government. All major trade unions are supporting us. We will all vote to get rid of this government if it doesn’t drop its privatisation plans,” he said. 

The Union government, while presenting its Budget for the 2021-22 had announced its intent to privatise the public sector banks.

Bank employees protesting against the attempts to privatise the PSBs.

“Other than IDBI Bank, we propose to take up the privatization of two Public Sector Banks and one General Insurance company in the year 2021-22,”Sitharaman had said in her budget speech.

Meanwhile, on December 13, in the ongoing Winter Session of the Parliament, two Lok Sabha legislators — Janata Dal (United) JD(U) MP Chandeshwar Prasad and Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) MP Manne Srinivas Reddy, had questioned the government about the details of privatisation of the public sector banks.

“Whether the Government has selected various public sector banks for privatisation; and if so, the details thereof and the reasons therefore along with the criteria of their selection?” the two legislators had asked. 

In her reply, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman informed Lok Sabha that the decision by the Cabinet committee concerned for privatisation of PSBs (public sector banks) has not been taken yet.

A pamphlet released by the All India Bank Employees Association mentioned that it is irrefutable that ‘privatisation neither brings efficiency nor safety’.

Also Read: Bank Strike on March 15-16: Banking services to be hit across India as employees protest against privatisation

The same day, on December 13, Congress MP Anumula Revanth Reddy had asked the government about the vacant positions in the public sector banks during the ongoing Winter Session of Parliament. 

Finance Minister Sitharaman replied that there are 805,986 sanctioned posts and 41,177 vacant posts in the 12 Public Sector Banks as on December 1, 2021.

What do the protesters say

Sandeep Singh, national secretary of the Indian National Bank Officers’ Congress (INBOC), told Gaon Connection that the move to privatise the public sector banks will have a negative impact on public welfare schemes. 

The worst impact of the privatisation of the banks will be on the poor sections of the society, said Singh. “At present, the financial incentives of all public welfare schemes are passed on to the beneficiaries through government banks. Do you think private banks will be accessible to the poor people? The minimum bank balance required there is Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000,” he added.

“Ninety seven per cent of the jan dhan accounts (financial inclusion scheme) are in public sector banks and 99 per cent of the loans under the MUDRA scheme are sanctioned by government banks. Such services are highly unlikely to be delivered to the poor people by private sector banks,” said Singh, the national secretary.

Also Read: From Farm Laws To Privatisation: About 200 million private and government employees to strike in protest on November 26

Also, a pamphlet released by the All India Bank Employees Association mentioned that it is irrefutable that ‘privatisation neither brings efficiency nor safety’. 

“Around the world innumerable private banks have failed. It is a myth to believe that only “privates” are efficient… The huge NPAs/stressed assets (NPA: non performing assets) of the banking industry belong to private large corporate which incontrovertibly, unquestionably demonstrates that private enterprises do not epitomise efficiency,” it stated. 

Mentioning the Union Budget 2021-22 which announced the government’s intention to privatise the public sector banks, the pamphlet stated that similar protests at the time of the announcement were ignored by the government. 

“It has, therefore, become inevitable for the United Forum of Bank Unions to convey our protest and draw the attention of the Government and Bank managements through agitational programmes and strike action,” AIBEA said in its official statement issued on December 16.

Poor working conditions in public sector banks 

Inefficient management in the public sector banks is one of the reasons stated for the need to privatise them but protestors argue that understaffed workforce and lack of sufficient resources affect their productivity and efficiency.

“We definitely agree that customers often face inconvenience in dealing with us but has anybody ever wondered what are the working conditions in public sector banks?” BP Singh, secretary of the All India Rural Bank Federation, told Gaon Connection. “Our computers and servers are overloaded. We are highly understaffed. At a time when the world is talking about bullet trains, government banks are working like bullock carts,” he lamented.

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‘Privatisation of banks would worsen rising inequalities’

Saurabh Srivastava, a member of the Bank of India Officers Association UP-Uttarakhand, told Gaon Connection in Lucknow that the bank employees are also worried that privatisation of the PSBs will worsen the income inequalities in the country.

“Our Constitution strives towards ensuring economic justice. Its Article 38B mentions that the State shall do everything possible to reduce economic inequality. At a time when the income inequality is rising, this privatisation will further give impetus to the capitalists and worsen the inequalities in the society,” Srivastava said.

Last week, France-based World Inequality Lab which works on evidence-based research on the drivers of inequality worldwide stated in its report that ‘India stands out as a poor and very unequal country, with an affluent elite’. The report found that the top 10 per cent hold 57 per cent of the total national income in India while the bottom 50 per cent’s share is just 13 per cent in 2021. 

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Echoing Srivastava, Prashant Kamal, the leader of political organisation Yuva Halla Bol stated that the role of government banks is not based on earning profits but including weaker sections of the society in the banking systems.

“Despite Reserve Banks of India’s constant appeals, the private banks have not opened their branches in the rural areas as much as government banks. The privatisation shall also lead to loss of jobs,” Kamal told Gaon Connection. 

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