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Nearly 10 lakh bank workers went on strike on March 15th and 16th

BA and Venkatesh Sundaram

According to a report in Money Control dated March 5, 2021, written by Mohan Unnikrishnan, a meeting between the Finance Ministry officials and bank employees union ended in an impasse.  Almost 10 lakh bank workers struck work on March 15 and 16, 2021 because of the refusal of the Government to withdraw its privatisation plans announced in the Union Budget in February 2021.  The Government claims that it does not have any concrete plans for privatisation of two public sector banks yet and urged the bank employees to call off their strike.  The Unions on the other hand insisted on an assurance that the privatisation will not go ahead.  And hence the impasse.

In the recent past, the NDA Government has gone ahead with several bank mergers.  It has significantly brought down the numbers of public sector banks by merging essentially successful banks under the pretext of being able to compete better in a global market.  There is now significant danger that the resulting larger banks can now go under if there is large concentration of non-performing assets.  The Unions could not prevent such mergers and employees have been watching with alarm as to what the future will hold for them in terms of their job security and the increase of workload of the employees.

The Finance Minister and her officials have not succeeded in convincing the bank workers as to what the benefits of privatisation are.  The standard list of reasons for privatisation goes under the rubric of “..lower productivity, steep erosion in asset quality and demonstrated un-competitiveness of public sector banks, the recapitalisation of these banks…costs on the government,’’ as mentioned in the article.  The facts on the ground shows a different reality.  In the past decade, several private banks have also collapsed and so have co-operative banks.  The reasons for fiscal distress are elsewhere and not in the public nature of banks.  Thus, Unions remain unconvinced of the reasons for privatisation.

It is interesting to note that an important member of the NDA Government, the Minister of Railways Mr Piyush Goyal gave a speech at the India Today Conclave in 2019 where he enumerated several reasons why Public Sector Banks are far superior to Private Sector Banks, including such reasons as fairness, boldness and risk taking, and support for the small entrepreneur.  He said in no uncertain terms that Private Banks will not lend even a rupee to such a small entrepreneur.  Moreover, Piyush Goyal also pointed out that private sector banks too have been beset by scandals and Non-Performing Assets! In view of such remarks from a senior member of Cabinet, it is fair to assume that the reasons for the privatisation are not what the Finance Minister now claims they are.

The activities of the Government have always been directed at making it easier for big corporate giants to flourish with every single economic reform.  The sale of public sector banks is also along these very lines.  The people of India are the principal stakeholders and they have not been consulted in this decision which concerns the wealth of which they are the collective owners.  The workers in the public sector banks are the guardians of these assets and they too have not been part of the decision-making process.  It is well within their rights to exercise their collective power, including that of the right to strike, since the sale of the nationalised banks is certainly not in the interests of the stakeholders – the people of India.  The intransigence of the Government therefore appears to spur the inevitability of the ongoing strike and will not prevent more strikes in the coming weeks and months. The Government should consider the demands seriously and scrap the planned sale.

Box-Excerpts on Right to Strike

Some excerpts from the article entitled `The Right to Strike’ by Alladi Kuppuswami, Chief Justice of Andhra Pradesh (retired) published in The Hindu, 09-10-2003

“It is true that in some cases the right to strike is being misused but that is no reason why all strikes should be condemned as immoral.’’

“If the right of an employee is denied by the employer or is interfered with, he has the right not to do work, i.e., to go on strike. If it is denied to a group of employees or all the employees, all of them can refuse to work for the employer (or go on strike) and a union representing the employees may ask them to go on strike.’’

“…Justice Ahmadi observed that the right to strike is an important weapon in the armour of workers as a mode of redress. Therefore, no statutory provision is needed to confer on the employees the right to strike.’’

“It is true that Government employees everywhere are paid better salaries and enjoy more privileges and amenities than other employees. The public sympathy is generally against Government employees who go on strike. But that is no justification for the Supreme Court to say that Government employees have no moral justification to go strike in every case.’’



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