Deprivation in the face of privatisation

By T S Haokip

When Angam of Molnom village in the North-Eastern state of Manipur joined a public sector bank in 2008, he was not only ecstatic but relieved to finally land a job in the public sector. His entire village was happy for him. In fact, he was the first to crack a Bank PO exam from his village. That the Indian Government has announced in its budget 2021 about the privatisation of Public Sector Banks and the subsequent announcement of the probable banks to be privatised, which included his Bank, has left him insecure and depressed. He cannot believe that all his efforts then, when preparing for the Bank PO exam, were for him to become a private employee now.

Employees of public sector banks, upon joining their organisation have to sign an agreement with the organisation. It goes without saying that, the employees believe that their service condition is an agreement between them and the organisation which has majority shares owned by the Government. They felt that job security is given in a public sector and hence decided to settle with the job without venturing for more employment opportunities.

With privatisation, the ownership of the Bank will be relinquished from the Government and the service rules governing the employees would then be open for modifications as per the owners’ liking and requirements. Though job security is one factor the Government ensures its employees, it is not a priority for corporates who are purely driven by profit-making decisions.

Still, one of the most important factors which many public sector bank employees feel is the pride and satisfaction of having contributed to the welfare of society by implementing the Government’s flagship programmes and being part of the financial inclusion movement, which many development experts believe is a key tool for poverty alleviation. As per the Ministry of Finance reports, the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana has more than 40 crore bank accounts opened by public sector banks, out of the total 41.7 crore accounts opened. Thus, handing over banks’ ownership to the corporates will not only rob employees of their job security but the all-important commitment and reason for them to put in extra efforts and their belief of doing something good for the society will fade away in the new environment.

The Honourable Finance Minister in her speech, on March 16, 2021, amidst the two days Bank strike called by the United Forum of Bank Unions in protest against the Government’s privatisation move, has assured to look into the salaries, scales, and concerns of the employees. But it is not clear to what extent and how long the Government can interfere in matters as internal as pay and promotion of a private corporation. Notably, many intellectuals and experts are against the privatisation of public sector banks. Former RBI Governor said in an interview with PTI on March 15, 2021, “I think it would be a colossal mistake to sell the banks to industrial houses.” Some however feel privatisation of PSBs is necessary considering the alarming number of NPAs in PSBs. What is important though is that the largest contributor to the NPAs of PSBs is in fact wilful-defaulter corporates.

As witnessed earlier in other instances like the Bank Unions’ opposition to the merger of banks, the Government could be tempted to move ahead with their plans to privatise PSBs, but the ensuing scenario will certainly see a disruption of the financial systems as the Bank employees Union are hell-bent on resisting the move. Also interesting is the concern felt by many that the present protest against privatisation goes beyond the PSBs; they believe that privatisation of PSBs will pave way for further change in ownership of many other public sector undertakings. The Railway Minister’s assurance that Railways will not be privatised could not deter many employees of PSUs from feeling the heat. Evidently, it is not just the bank employees the Government has to worry about if it plans to go ahead with their PSBs privatisation plans

After the two days strike, AIBEA General Secretary C H Venkatachalam told PTI on the March 16, 2021, “We got support from all trade unions, some farmer organisations and several political parties have supported us.” He also warned that more strikes will happen if the Government is not ready to listen and goes ahead with its decision to privatise PSBs. Whatever be the circumstances, the nationalisation of Banks was undertaken with the main intent of using banks as a vehicle to usher in development with the element of deliberating social welfare concerns well-imbibed in the decisions and policies of the Bank. Thus judging public sector banks from the angle of profitability alone could portray the wrong picture. For a country that still has issues like unemployment, poverty and job insecurity, privatisation of public sector banks could bring more misgivings. And employees of the PSBs like Angam are well within their rights and actually right to oppose privatisation of public sector banks.

(The writer is an author and freelance writer)

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