2-Day Bank Strike: Unions Warn of Indefinite Stir if Centre Refuses to Budge on Privatisation
Striking bank officers and employees protested across the country. Image Courtesy - AIBEA
New Delhi: Over eight lakh bank officers and employees across the country struck work on Thursday, as part of their two-day strike action programme, to protest against the listing of a Bill in the legislative business of the ongoing winter session of Parliament.
The said Bill seeks to amend banking laws in the country, the passage of which will pave the way for the privatisation of two public sector banks. The latter was first announced by the Narendra Modi-led Central Government during the presentation of Union Budget 2021-22 earlier this year.
Miffed by the decision, that is feared to roll back gains achieved post-1969 process that saw the nationalisation of 14 major banks then present in the country, the bank officers and employees have been up in arms against the Central Government for many months now.
On Thursday, as they were led by the United Forum of Bank Unions (UFBU), a coming together of nine bank unions, the striking officers and employees threatened to go an indefinite strike in the coming months if the Central Government doesn't pay heed to their concerns. Among the protesting unions are four bank officers' bodies, including All India Bank Officers' Confederation (AIBOC) and five bank employees' bodies, including All India Bank Employees Union (AIBEA).
"Over eight lakh employees across the country are on strike today against the Modi Government's anti-national, anti-people policies," Pankaj Kapoor of AIBOC said on Thursday. An officer in Bank of India's (BOI) New Delhi branch, Kapoor, spoke to NewsClick at Jantar Mantar where a demonstration of striking bank officers and employees saw the participation of over 600 protesters.
According to Kapoor, picketing at zonal bank offices started as early as six in the morning on Thursday across the national capital.
"Employees and officers were asked to join the strike action today and tomorrow. Watching us protesting, many depositors also joined us in the protest today," he said.
Likewise, Chiranjit Ghosh, national joint secretary, Bank Employees Federation of India (BEFI), said on Thursday that demonstrations, public meetings, and rallies were held across the major cities in the country, which hit banking services in major public banks, including State Bank of India (SBI), Bank of Baroda, Punjab National Bank (PNB), among others.
In many places, ATMs became dry, and clearing operations and cash transactions were affected, AIBEA said in a statement on Thursday, adding that the bank strike was "total success."
"Two-day bank strike was preceded by various programmes like dharnas in state capitals and other places, signature campaigns, badge-wearing, mask-wearing, Twitter campaigns, press conferences by which the issues and reasons of the strike call were taken to common people including our customers," Ghosh said.
Following the announcement of privatisation of two public sector banks, the Central Government decided to introduce a bill, namely the Banking Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021, during the ongoing winter session of the Parliament. As per media reports, the draft law is likely to propose that the minimum government holding in public banks be trimmed to 26% from earlier 51%.
To achieve so, the Bill carries amendments to Banking Companies (Acquisition and Transfer of Undertakings) Acts, 1970 and 1980, and the Banking Regulation Act, 1949.
If passed in the Parliament, the move will likely lead to the privatisation, in a first, of the Indian Overseas Bank and the Central Bank of India. The Centre currently owns more than 90% stakes in both these banks.
On Thursday, striking bank officers and employees argued that most of the brunt of the said move would be borne by the general public of the country. According to unions' estimates, there are 12 public sector banks in the country, which provide banking facilities to close to 120 crore customers.
"The deposits of the public that are safe in the hands of the Government-owned banks are being handed over to private players who care about nothing but profits," lamented Hans Raj, 58, a Bank of India (BOI) officer who had come to partake in the demonstration at Jantar Mantar on Thursday.
"What will happen to the social schemes of the government? Will the private players, who are often found engaging in corrupt practices, care about the poor population of this nation," Raj asked. He was alluding to the alleged scams in Yes Bank and other private finance companies such as DHFL that the government agencies have unearthed in recent times.
Standing beside Raj, Rahul Trivedi, a customer of SBI, concurred.
"My family doesn't have a bank account in any private bank because I am not financially stable enough to maintain a minimum balance as required by them," said the 33-year-old, who found about Thursday's demonstration through social media and decided to join the protesters in solidarity.
CH Venkatachalam, general secretary, AIBEA, told NewsClick over the phone that the bank officers and employees will be "forced to consider" giving a call for an "indefinite strike" if the Central Government introduce the contentious Bill and manage to get it passed in the Parliament.
"This Bill hasn't been introduced yet in the Parliament and, hence, we do not know what exactly has been envisaged by the Modi Government," said Venkatachalam 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."
The Centre failed in giving any such assurance, he added.
Meanwhile, solidarity poured in for the striking bank officers and employees from other sections of the Central Government employees as well, who flayed the Narendra Modi-led government for pushing ahead the privatisation agenda "to benefit few corporates."
The employees of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) held a lunchtime gate meeting at their offices across the country, while demonstrations were staged at the respective call of All India NABARD Employees Association and All India Insurance Employees Association on Thursday.
In addition to them, employees of BSNL, along with defence employees and power sector employees, also extended "fraternal support" to the striking bank officers and employees.
The 10 Central Trade Unions, including AITUC and CITU, had also earlier urged the Central Government to shelve its reform-oriented banking Bill that is "ill-advised" and "retrograde" in nature.
"Bank employees' movement has been resolutely fighting for more than last three decades against the Govt's multi-pronged move towards a dilution of the public sector status of the banking sector and through that process are still defending the public sector banks and also peoples' vital interests. This proposed two days' strike is also aimed at building up resistance to destructive privatisation move of the Govt, along with the people," the CTUs had said in their joint statement.
Several political parties and members of Parliament, including Congress, AITC, DMK, CPI, CPM and leaders of YSRC, TRC, Shiv Sena, AAP, have also extended their support to the two-day bank strike.
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