A purported audio clip of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman referring to the State Bank of India (SBI) as a "heartless" and "inefficient" bank has gone viral.
News 18 reported that in the tape which is seemingly from an event in Guwahati on February 27, an enraged Sitharaman can be heard criticising the country's largest state-run lender, SBI chairman Rajnish Kumar, accusing him of being responsible for all the failures of the bank in extending loans, especially to the tea garden workers.
The purported conversation occurred at a meeting between Sitharaman and bankers on issues faced by Assam and the other Northeastern states. Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and officials of the department of financial services also attended the meeting.
It was evident from the conversation in the audio clip that the FM was upset about the fact that 2.5 lakh bank accounts belonging to tea garden workers in Assam had become non-operational due to a lack of acceptable Know Your Customer (KYC) requirements.
This had resulted in making the implementation of the Direct Benefit Transfer scheme for tea garden workers difficult.
"Don't tell me you are the largest bank. You are a heartless bank. SLBCs don't function like this," she can be heard as saying.
"Yeh nahin chalega (this can't go on)," she seems to be saying twice to the SBI Chairman.
"You should have approached the department, made the department talk to RBI," Sitharaman said.
"I am sorry to be sounding so harsh. I will see what I can do with RBI. SLBCs don't function like this. But nothing makes up for your inefficiency... Let me be very blunt on this... There shall not be a hiatus (for tea garden workers)," she added.
"It's your inefficiency which cost it... Make sure everything is done so that there is no break," the Fm said. She further asked for a "game plan" for a solution to the situation from the SBI chairman.
Replying to her demand, Kumar said it could be done in a short time, to which Sitharaman asked, "What is short?"
Kumar responded that it can be done in a week.
"Don't time me out sir. SBI Chairman, you will meet me in Delhi. This is an utter omission of job. I hold you completely responsible for a failure. I will have a detailed talk with you," the FM told Kumar.
"You may be a senior officer... I am sorry... You let me down, you let the government of India down, you let Assam government down," Sitharaman added.
"Get the accounts going... Not one tea garden worker will suffer," she further directed the SBI chief.
On March 14, the All India Bank Officers Confederation (AIBOC) condemned the Finance Minister's behaviour, in a statement.
"Through this communique, we once again convey our deep anguish and resentment to the Union Finance Minister for treating the Chairman of State Bank of India in such an unfair manner," the statement said.
"We are of the view that representatives of the people should abstain from indulging in such misdemeanour with any top-level executive of the public sector banks. We also demand an immediate investigation in the matter of recording of the Financial Outreach Programme Enclave at Guwahati and misuse of social media by certain miscreants," it added.
They later withdrew the statement saying there was a lack of sufficient confirmation about the sequence of the events.
The withdrawn statement said that the finance minister launched a "vituperative verbal tirade" at the SBI chairman and humiliated him. It expressed its "deep anguish" and resentment for the treatment of the SBI chairman in an "unfair manner".
On the night of March 14, Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma responded the AIBOC statement through Twitter.
"It appears that the All India Bank Officers' Confederation has not understood the context. In 2017, Govt of Assam opened nearly 8 lakhs accounts of tea garden workers, one of the most marginalized sections of Assam," he tweeted.
He also expressed gratitude to Sitharaman for "championing the cause of these deprived workers" and for her proactive stance in solving the problem.
Sitharaman quoted Sarma's tweet and further tweeted the statement of AIBOC which said that it was withdrawing its earlier statement and that it was "erroneously issued".
The Times of India reported that SBI initiating action — including lodging an FIR — against "mischievous elements" for recording and circulating an audio clip.
The ministry official defended the Finance Minister's stance on the issue and called her comments "justified and legitimate concern" over the functioning of the state and local level bankers.
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