New Delhi/Mumbai/Chennai, Oct 27 (IANS) Over a million employees of domestic and foreign banks struck work in India Friday to protest the financial sector reforms programme, inconveniencing customers and disrupting commercial activities across the country.
The employees were specifically protesting the government's proposal to merge some state-run banks, outsource back-end financial operations to private players and impose a freeze on new recruitments on non-essential banking areas.
The strike held up the clearing operations of at least five million cheques and caused inconvenience to people who wanted to withdraw money or get drafts made, especially in smaller cities and towns, central bank officials said.
'Except for contract employees, over one million employees, including officers, were on a strike,' said C.H. Venkatachalam, general secretary of the All India Bank Employees Association.
'The losses due to banking strike cannot be quantified, though it inconvenienced customers, corporate and trading sectors. But what to do, we are being forced to resort to strike,' Venkatachalam told IANS in Chennai.
The United Forum of Bank Unions (UFBU) - an umbrella organisation of nine trade unions of bank officers and employees - had called the strike after talks with the government and the Reserve Bank of India Wednesday ended in a stalemate.
India has 27 state-run banks that account for around 70 percent of the country's banking operations. In addition, there are 61 private and foreign banks as well. Together, the industry is the second-largest employer in the organised sector.
In the national capital, some 1,500 employees gathered outside the main branch of the government-owned State Bank of India (SBI) at Parliament Street, shouting slogans against the government's financial sector reforms.
In Mumbai, India's commercial capital, tens of thousands of bank staff gathered at Azad Maidan - a downtown cricket ground and a favourite for public rallies - shouting slogans against Finance Minister P. Chidambaram's policies.
Only some foreign banks and a few in the private sector were functioning, albeit with a depleted staff. ATM operations at most places, however, were smooth, as per reports received from other cities.
Stock market operations and commodity exchanges also functioned normally.
According to some union members, bank employees are also angry at the decision of bank managements not to provide employment on compassionate grounds and rely strictly on merit.
'In every other service when an employee dies in line of duty, a member of his or her family gets employment. Why should it then be denied to bank employees,' an office bearer of the forum said.
This apart, some 100,000 posts that fell vacant have been filled with contract workers, the union members said, adding that they were also opposed to extending full voting rights to foreign banks that pick up stakes in Indian banks.
At present, the voting rights to managements of foreign banks that have equity in Indian banks are limited to 10 percent.
'This is only a warning,' Venkatachalam said, referring to the future course of action proposed by the unions.
'Since bank managements and the government have remained