A day after a controversy erupted over finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman pulling up SBI executives led by chairman Rajneesh Kumar, the country’s largest lender said it was initiating action — including lodging an FIR — against “mischievous elements” for unauthorisedly recording and circulating an audio clip over social media, while ministry officials defended the minister’s impatience.
They described the FM’s comments as “justified and legitimate concern” over the functioning of state and locallevel bankers.
“She was lamenting the insensitivity of local bank officials and pulled up the officers of the state-level bankers’ committee (SLBC). In fact, their insensitive action had deprived almost 8 lakh tea garden workers of accessing their Jan-Dhan bank account dues for more than a year. The poor tea garden workers were unable to get their own DBT benefits withdrawn. They were suffering for no fault of theirs and the local bank officials, despite various attempts by the local and state administration, were not paying any heed to resolve this.
At the meeting, the issue was flagged by the Assam government, led by state finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. He complained that there had been no progress despite several meetings convened by him. Sarma told the Union FM that some of the senior executives did not attend these meetings.
The issue came to light after the All India Bank Officers’ Confederation issued a statement criticising the FM’s comments, only to withdraw it later. After the audio clip started doing the rounds on social media on Saturday, Sarma took to Twitter to say that AIBOC did not understand the context.
In the audio clip,
Sitharaman is heard referring to SBI as a “heartless” bank, while telling bankers that their approach was unacceptable. She is heard saying she will approach the RBI to resolve the issue, although it is not her job. “What kind of SLBC is this?… I will speak to the RBI governor today. It is not my business. You should have approached the department and made it talk to RBI and you should have finished it before 24 months were exhausted. I am sorry to sound so harsh. I am not pleased, sir. I am not pleased, chairman SBI, SLBCs don’t function like this.”
She instructed the bankers to start the work while she spoke to RBI and then added: “Nothing makes up for your inefficiency. Let me be blunt on this.” Sitharaman then demanded a timeline to fix the problem faced by the tea garden workers who could not access their accounts and instructed SBI chief to meet her in Delhi. Describing it as “utter omission of job”, the FM is heard telling the SBI chairman that she holds him “completely responsible for a failure” and would have a “detailed talk”.
The minister then rapped a local executive. “You may be a senior official but I am sorry, you let the government down,” she is heard saying, after which the banker apologised. At the meeting there were also complaints of the absence of ATMs and branches, which resulted in tea garden workers being unable to access money lying in their accounts.
On Sunday, Sarma seemed to strike a reconciliatory tone. “The government highly values spirited partnership of all banking institutions,” he tweeted.
The 8 lakh accounts were opened by the Assam government in 2017 and an incentive amount of Rs 5,000 was transferred to each account. But due to the “half-hearted approach of local bank officials”, a sizeable section of these tea garden workers were being deprived of their rightful dues, the officer said.
The senior finance ministry official said that Sitharaman had pulled up the local bank executives, including the one who was heading the state level bankers committee for ”being insensitive” to the plight of 8 lakh tea garden workers.
“These local bank officers were giving some lame excuses. The finance minister did not agree to it and asked the issue of these tea garden workers be resolved on urgent basis.
Input by TOI