New Delhi: Demonstrations, public meetings, rallies were staged with continued vigour and slogans reverbed against the “retrograde” privatisation push throughout the day, as the two-day strike of the bank officers and employees, called to oppose the listing of a contentious Bill in the legislative business of the ongoing winter session of Parliament, culminated on Friday.
The headline numbers, as shared by the bank unions, suggested that the strike action was a “total success”. According to them, over eight lakh of the banking workforce across the country abstained from work, thereby, resulting in the closing down of “95 per cent of the branches” of the Indian Public Sector Banks (PSUs) for two days.
Resultantly, normal transactions – and, those involving cash – were not carried out; at many places, ATMs remained dry; and, clearing of cheques were affected. As for the striking bank employees and officers, they will lose out on their two days’ salary, NewsClick was told, for taking to the streets despite the bank managements’ appeals to reconsider the decision.
“The two-day strike saw an overwhelmingly strong participation from the bank officers and employees in all the States,” Soumya Dutta, national general secretary, All India Bank Officers’ Confederation (AIBOC) told NewsClick over the phone from Kolkata on Friday afternoon. The bank unions, coming together under an umbrella body, namely, United Forum of Bank Unions (UFBU), were thus able to send a “strong message” to the Narendra Modi-led Central Government, he added.
While Dutta reiterated the strike-is-all-successful narrative, what exactly is the ‘strong message’ that he referred to, sloganeering surrounding which was also heard at national capital’s Jantar Mantar on Thursday?
Moreover, what is it that made the Indian Public Sector (PSU) Bank officers and employees to go on strike for the second time in less than a year – their last two-day strike was staged earlier this year in March.
PSUs ‘DOING WELL’, PRIVATISATION NOT NEEDED
To begin gaining clarity on this, let us first, take a quick look at the said Bill, over which bank employees, officers and the Central government are locking horns. Listed to be introduced in the ongoing winter session of Parliament, is the Banking Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021.
It is believed to be brought in by the Central government to create an enabling provision for expediting the process of privatising PSU banks in the country – even as, to be sure, the fine prints of the said Bill are unknown as yet.
For years now, the subject of privatisation of banks has got the bank officers and employees up in arms against the Modi government which, according to the former’s unions, is relentlessly pushing the idea of privatisation as the “much-needed reform” for the banking industry.
This was the same shadow under which the 2020 consolidation exercise within the Indian banking space was viewed – and arguably for correct reasons – by the unions, and hence, they flayed the amalgamation of 10 State-owned banks into 4. Likewise, when Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the privatisation of 2 public banks in her Union Budget 2021-22 speech back in February this year, the unions registered their opposition through strike action.
Their major argument goes as follows: all the public sector banks – there are 12 currently – are “doing well and earning a substantial profit,” however, the “only” issue that they confront is that of the huge Non-Performing Assets (NPAs).
TURNING TO FARMERS’ AGITATION
While none of these arguments is novel, this time, there’s something more than just this.
CH Venkatachalam, speaking to NewsClick over the phone, expounded it.
“The Bill hasn't been introduced yet in the Parliament and, hence, we do not know what exactly has been envisaged by the Modi government,” the general secretary of All India Bank Employees Association (AIBEA) had told NewsClick on Thursday, adding, “Because of this, we, first, had requested the Government to assure that the Bill [is] not be introduced in this session so that the unions can meet the Government and submit their details viewpoints as to why they oppose privatisation of Banks.”
Venkatachalam was alluding to the conciliation meeting before the additional chief labour secretary that was convened earlier this week – one which failed. The Centre had refused to give any assurances, he added.
It is this episode that failed to prevent the bank officers and employees to stage a work strike – and, incidentally, it reminds one of the farm laws, the passage of which in Parliament last year, had triggered an agitation that eventually ended recently, only after ensuring that the controversial legislations are rolled back.
The Sanyukta Kisan Morcha, an umbrella body that spearheaded the agitation, had argued that the agriculture reforms saw no pre-legislative consultation with the concerned stakeholders, besides, flaying the reforms as purportedly tilting the playing field in favour of the corporates.
It is more or less similar to what the bank unions argued this time, and hence, quite unsurprisingly, the latest bank strike saw much of the success with voices against bank privatisation gaining strength, arguably as a spin-off to the farmers’ historic victory.
“The farmers’ have shown us that if one remains committed to their struggle and a united fight is put up, then those in power will have to listen to the public,” said one bank officer, who refused to be named, at Jantar Mantar on Thursday, adding that much like farm laws, the banking reform Bill will also be made to “rolled back” if the Central government introduces it in the Parliament and manage to get it passed.
Dutta of AIBOC on Friday concurred, saying that the two-strike has shown that the bank privatisation will not go unopposed. “There will be serious repercussions in the upcoming State elections if the BJP government doesn’t pay heed to our demands,” he warned, alluding to the assembly elections that are scheduled for early next year in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, among others.
Indeed, this possibility must also be in the minds of the decision-makers in the Central government, as news of the banking reform Bill unlikely to be presented in the ongoing Parliament session came on the day when striking bank employees and officers threatened an indefinite stir.