In an outburst against the State Bank of India and its top brass, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman referred to the largest government-owned bank as “heartless” and “inefficient” because some 2.5 lakh bank accounts of tea garden workers in Assam were not functional.
She was speaking at a financial inclusion outreach programme in Guwahati on February 27, which was organised by the Department of Financial Services along with the concerned State Level Bankers’ Committees (SLBCs).
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In an audio clip of the event, Sitharaman asks how soon the accounts could be made functional, and an SBI officer is heard saying that the bank needed some clearance from the Reserve Bank of India for these accounts to be made functional, and it can be done within a week.
At this point, the Finance Minister snaps, and says, “Don’t tire me out… don’t tire me out. (inaudible). SBI Chairman you will meet me in Delhi on this matter and I am not letting this go. This is utter omission of job. I hold you completely responsible for a failure and I shall have a detailed talk with you. (You should) get the accounts going and not one of the tea garden workers will suffer because of your obduracy.”
Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and several senior bureaucrats from the state and the Centre were present at the SLBC meeting.
Responding to the audio clip, the All India Bank Officers’ Confederation (AIBOC), which has 3.2 lakh officers as members, on March 13, condemned the Finance Minister for her allegedly “direct and unsavoury” attack on Rajnish Kumar.
In the statement, AIBOC general secretary Soumya Datta said: “She even went on to brand State Bank of India as a ‘heartless Bank’ and literally humiliated Rajnish Kumar, Chairman of the largest bank in the country in the forum.” He pointed to the “huge burden” on the SBI in bailing out Yes Bank, and said it was an irony that these comments came when public sector banks were “overburdened predominantly with various government schemes”.
On Saturday, however, AIBOC said it had withdrawn the statement, claiming it was “erroneously issued”. While Datta did not respond to calls and messages, Prabir Sorkhel, Administrative Secretary, AIBOC, said, “We have given the letter you mentioned. But we have retracted it later. This is all I can say.” The office was shut on Saturday.
Post midnight, Sitharaman tweeted the AIBOC letter which said that the March 13 statement was erroneously issued, and had been withdrawn.
In Mumbai, an SBI spokesperson said the bank officers’ confederation has withdrawn its statement and did not offer any further comment. Separate mails sent to the SBI Chairman and the Finance Ministry did not elicit any response.
A source in SBI in Guwahati said: “It is not very easy to get the garden workers to open bank accounts and continue them. There are many issues. But yes, there is a government push towards it. Announcing policies by government is one thing, but in the implementation often there are many hurdles, which have to be overcome — and we are working towards it, we are sending people to the ground and taking all steps.”
The source said bank officers were unhappy “after the FM spoke rudely”.
Attaching the AIBOC statement of March 13, Assam Finance Minister Sarma posted a series of tweets late on Saturday evening, and said the confederation “has not understood the context”, and that he strongly opposed it. He said the state had opened nearly 8 lakh accounts of tea garden workers in 2017.
“Subsequently, we transferred an incentive amount of Rs 5,000 in each account. Due to procedural lapses & lack of alertness on part of local banking officials, a sizeable section of these workers were being deprived of their rightful dues as they could not withdraw their own money from these accounts,” he wrote in the tweets.
Sarma had raised the issue in his Budget speech on March 6. In Financial Year 2018-19, the state had transferred Rs 5,000 through Direct Benefit Transfer to 7,21,485 bank accounts of tea garden workers across 752 tea gardens spread over 26 districts in two equal instalments of Rs 2,500 each, he had said.
“One issue that was preventing us from going full throttle with this scheme was Know Your Customer (KYC) norms pertaining to some of these bank accounts. However, I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude towards Hon’ble Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman whose recent visit to Assam has resulted in a quick resolution of this issue,” he had said.
Assam’s tea garden worker community has been a special focus area of the Sarbananda Sonowal-led government. The party made massive gains in the Lok Sabha elections in the Upper Assam region which is dotted with tea gardens. There are over 800 registered tea estates in the state, and the workers suffer from economic backwardness, poor health conditions, and low literacy rate.
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