New Delhi: Nearly 300 tea gardens in Assam have been provided access to banking facilities via business correspondents, a year after Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman lambasted the State Bank of India (SBI) chairman for failing to provide banking facilities to tea garden workers while on a visit to the state.
In addition, nearly 90 ATMs have been installed in these areas with another 30 to be installed by end of the current month, according to banking industry sources.
Over the last few years, the Modi government has increased its focus on the Northeast prodding banks to ensure better implementation of the government’s schemes and welfare programmes like the PM Jan Dhan Yojana, PM-Kisan scheme as well as the insurance schemes offered by the Centre.
The massive financial inclusion push, despite the pandemic and lockdown, also comes as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party looks to return to power in the state. The three-phase assembly elections in Assam are set to begin 27 March.
During her visit in February 2020, Sitharaman had taken then SBI chairman Rajnish Kumar to task for the bank’s failure to operationalise bank accounts of tea garden workers which were non-compliant with know your customer (KYC) norms. Due to this, the state government could not transfer Rs 2,500 to 30 per cent or around 2.5 lakh of the total 8 lakh tea garden workers’ bank accounts in the aftermath of demonetisation.
Sitharaman had called the bank “heartless” and “inefficient” and asked SBI to ensure access to banking facilities for tea garden workers.
SBI heads the state level bankers committee in Assam.
What happened over the last year
According to the state government website, there are nearly 800 tea gardens in the state employing lakhs of people. As of February last year, 330 tea gardens were identified which did not have access to banking facilities.
The drive was taken up after the Assam government flagged a large number of tea garden areas in upper, northern and riverine areas of the state that do not have access to banking facilities. It pointed out that tea gardens constitute 21 per cent of Assam’s geographical area but do not have ATMs or bank branches nearby. The government also raised the issue in a meeting of the state level banker’s committee.
“Typically, every tea garden has a principal banker where it maintains their accounts. However, this does not mean that there would be a branch or ATM nearby,” said a banker in the state who did not wish to be identified.
“The state government had pointed out that there were no nearby ATMs or bank branches. Since the finance minister’s previous visit in February 2020, the banks have taken steps to improve access to banking facilities for tea garden workers,” he added.
Setting up bank branches is not financially feasible given the vast geographical spread. Hence, the coverage has been done using business correspondents, the banker said.
“Similarly, of the 118 locations identified by the state government for coverage by ATMs, around 80 fixed ATMs and around 10 mobile ATMs have been deployed. The remaining locations will be covered by the end of this month,” the banker added.
(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)