New Delhi: With the Centre not showing any signs of a rollback of its decision to privatise two public sector banks, one general insurer, and the partial listing of a state-owned life insurance and investment corporation, employees of the finance sector are now preparing for a work strike in protest later this month.
The employees, including those holding officers’ positions, accused the Narendra Modi-led government of launching a privatisation spree with the “ill-motive” of “benefiting corporate groups at the cost of the common people.”
In the Union Budget 2021-22 presented by the Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman last month, a disinvestment target of Rs. 1.75 lakh crore – Rs 75,000 crore from disinvestment and Rs 1,00,000 crore from sale of stake in public sector banks and financial institutions – was announced. In her budget speech the FM said that the initial public offering of Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) will be completed in 2021-22.
The decisions drew flak from union bodies representing bank employees, along with those active within General Insurance Corporation (GIC) and LIC, who have called for a two-day strike on March 15 and16 and a one-day strike on March 17 and March 18 respectively.
“The employees will not let the government go ahead with the privatisation of public sector banks. It is a move that is aimed at benefiting corporate groups at the cost of the common people,” said Soumya Datta, general secretary, All India Bank Officers’ Confederation (AIBOC).
AIBOC is one of the constituents of the United Forum of Bank Unions (UFBU), a nine-member umbrella body of bank unions, which called for the strike action.
While speaking to Newsclick on Saturday, Datta claimed that while banks unions have registered their apprehensions even in the past with regard to an idea with the “ill-motive” of taking the country’s banking sector to a “pre-nationalisation” stage. He said there was a change in the strategy this time around.
Fourteen of the largest private banks in the country were nationalised on July 19, 1969 by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi – who held additional charge of the finance ministry – thereby bringing most of the banking assets under the control of the state.
“The unions are making efforts to reach out to all the major stakeholders of the banks, including other financial institutions as well as self help groups (SHGs) and the general public at large,” he said.
The aim is to drive home the message that the privatisation of public banks will affect the common people and depositors and not just the employees, added Datta. He fears the privatisation of banks will result in “depriving the common people, especially in those in rural areas of banking services.”
Similar sentiments were echoed by A.K. Bhatnagar, vice president, All India Insurance Employees Association (AIIEA), who flayed the “ideological commitment” of the Centre which influences its policy decisions.
“Over a lakh life insurance employees – belonging to all four class groups – will go on strike for one day; the GIC employees are also preparing to make their strike successful across the country,” Bhatnagar said, adding that the message is clear that “not just employees but policy holders will too suffer due to the IPO.”
Bhatnagar said that insurance employees are also approaching Member of Parliaments (MPs) and Member of Legislative Assemblies (MLAs) with a written memorandum in their respective constituencies to seek their support in the run-up to the strike. “The protest programme won’t end only with this strike. We are already in talks with bank unions to give the call for a joint action programme in the future,” he said.
Datta confirmed that talks were underway with the employees’ unions active in other sectors, including defence and railways, to chart out a “collective action” plan for the future.
The Centre had called for a meeting with the bank employees’ union on March 4 to discuss its plan to privatise public sector banks in the backdrop of the employees’ decision to strike work. “We made it clear that unless the Finance Minister herself doesn’t come out in public and withdraw the decision to privatise the banks, the strike won’t be deferred,” Datta told Newsclick.
Another round of talks between the union and the Centre is scheduled on March 9.