Banking services such as cash withdrawals, deposits, cheque clearances and remittances were impacted across public sector banks (PSBs) on Monday, with around 10 lakh staffers joining a two-day strike to protest against the government's policy to privatise more public sector lenders, union leaders said.
A total of 2.01 crore cheque instruments worth Rs 16,500 crore could not be processed at the three national grids -- Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi, as per data provided by the bank unions.
The strike was called by the United Forum of Bank Unions (UFBU), an umbrella body of nine bank unions -- AIBEA, AIBOC, NCBE, AIBOA, BEFI, INBEF, INBOC, NOBW and NOBO.
In the Union Budget for FY22, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had said the government will privatise two more public sector banks after having divested the majority stake in IDBI Bank two years ago.
"In the conciliation meeting held by the Additional Chief Labour Commissioner on 4th, 9th and 10th March, from UFBU we offered to reconsider the strike provided the government would reconsider their decision.
“Government did not agree to our offer. Hence the strike has been forced upon us," the All India Bank Employees Association (AIBEA) said in a statement.
The strike commenced on Monday morning successfully, it said.
Many state-run banks had earlier urged their customers to use digital channels like internet and mobile banking for making transactions.
The Central Bank of India, in a regulatory filing, said work at its branches was impacted by the strike.
"This is to inform that the strike has been called by the United Forum of Bank Unions (UFBU) on 15th and 16th March, 2021.
"While the bank has made all arrangements to ensure normal functioning of its branches and offices, the work in our bank was impacted by the strike," said the lender.
C H Venkatachalam, general secretary, AIBEA, said, "As per reports reaching us from various states, banking operations have been affected and paralysed in all centres. Most of the branches could not be opened."
"Clearing of cheques could not happen since branches are not accepting cheques for clearance as branches are closed.
“On an average, about 2 crore cheques/ instruments worth about Rs 16,500 crores are held up for clearance," he said, adding the strike will continue on Tuesday as well.
The strike saw 100 per cent participation from scale I, II and III bank employees, a bank official said.
"These are assistant managers, managers and senior managers.
“At this level, there is 100 per cent participation in the strike and 80-90 per cent branches are headed by them," the official added.
The bigger branches are headed by chief managers or AGMs and even if these senior level employees are not taking part in the strike, they alone cannot run the banks, the official said.
Meanwhile, branches of private sector lenders like ICICI Bank, HDFC Bank and Axis Bank remained operational as usual.
All India Bank Officers Association (AIBOC) general secretary Sowmya Dutta said the government's policies are going to have ill effects on the economy and it will be reflected in the upcoming polls in several states.
He said nearly all bank employees took part in the strike, except for top level officers.
"All banking services are impacted from cash withdrawals to deposits, business transactions, passbook updation, loan process, cheque clearing, account opening and business transactions," he said.
He said the striking employees took out rallies, wherever permitted, across the country and held sit-in protests.
If the government does not listen to them, they will go for an even bigger, indefinite strike, on the lines of the ongoing farmers' agitation, he added.
"We are connected with crores of population through our branches, we are educating our customers about the government's ill policies and how it is going to impact them," Dutta said.
Through the Department of Financial Services, the bank unions have also conveyed to the finance minister to withdraw her statement from the floor of the Parliament about privatisation of the state-owned banks, he added.
Officials said ATMs went dry at many places as the last replenishment happened on Friday and many people withdrew money in the weekend sensing the problems they could face due to the strike.
"Some banks have private arrangements to replenish the ATMs, otherwise there were no replenishments from the banks," said an official.
Asserting that privatisation is not the solution, AIBEA said all the banks are making profits and it is only because of bad loans and provisions that lenders are incurring losses.
"In fact, if banks are privatised and sold, only the big corporate and business houses can purchase our banks. Private companies are the defaulters in banks.
“Can we hand over our banks to the same private sector?
"Further, even today, many private banks are not doing well. Last year, Yes Bank ran into serious problems.
“The bank would have collapsed but for the immediate help from SBI and others. It is unfortunate that still the government wants to privatise our banks," Venkatachalam said.
The union said banks in the country need to be vibrant to ensure economic development and suggested measures such as strengthening the PSBs, adequate capital infusion, more branches in unbanked areas, stringent measures to recover corporate bad loans as well as making wilful default of loans a criminal offence, among others.
It also pitched for RBI publishing names of loan defaulters once in three months, debarring defaulters from contesting elections, increasing rate on deposits, merger of regional rural banks with sponsor banks, functional autonomy to banks, longer term to executive and managing directors, apart from filling up vacancies for workmen/officer directors in the PSBs.
Opposing the government's contention that some PSBs are in losses and that it can no longer take care of them, AIBEA said all state-run lenders are earning operating profits.
The gross operating profits of PSBs during 2009-10 to 2019-20 (FY10-20) was Rs 14.58 lakh crore, AIBEA said.
"Because of provision for bad loans some of the Banks are in net loss. So the priority is to take tough action on defaulters and recover the loans.
"But the government is encouraging more write-offs and concessions to corporate defaulters," Venkatachalam said.
Photograph: Pappi Sharma/ANI Photo