New Delhi: A purported audio clip of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman taking State Bank of India Chairman Rajnish Kumar to task has gone viral.
Sitharaman, who has been known to lose her cool as finance minister – and as defence minister in the first term of PM Modi – can be heard calling the country’s largest state-run lender “heartless” and “inefficient” in the purported audio clip.
The clip was uploaded on YouTube Friday and was widely shared Saturday.
The purported comments are said to have been made at a meeting between Sitharaman and bankers in the last week of February on issues faced by Assam and the other Northeastern states. The meeting was attended by Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and officials of the department of financial services.
The finance minister, it could be gathered from the purported conversation, was upset 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 made the implementation of the Direct Benefit Transfer scheme for tea garden workers difficult.
“State bank of India…no good if you tell me you are the biggest bank…you are a heartless bank,” Sitharaman is heard saying in the purported audio clip.
She is heard telling the SBI chairman that the bank should have reached out to the department of financial services to approach the RBI regarding the KYC norms.
“It is your inefficiency that has caused this,” Sitharaman is heard telling the SBI chairman in the purported conversation. “This is utter omission of job. I hold you completely responsible for the failure.”
SBI heads the state level bankers committee (SLBC) in Assam.
SBI chairman Kumar is heard apologising after Sitharaman’s outburst in the purported clip. “I am really sorry,” he is heard saying.
ThePrint reached finance ministry spokesperson Rajesh Malhotra for comment but there was no response until the time of publishing this report.
SBI’s spokesperson also did not respond to requests for comment.
‘KYC compliance issues’
At a press conference after a series of meetings in Guwahati, Sitharaman had said the issues faced by tea garden workers on account of ineffective accounts was being sorted out.
Sarma then added that while 8 lakh accounts of tea garden workers have been opened, 30 per cent of these were not operational because of KYC compliance issues.
“She (Sitharaman) has given instructions to public sector banks that all these 2.5 lakh accounts should be made live…and this should happen immediately,” Sarma said.
On Saturday, the All India Bank Officers Confederation issued a statement condemning the finance minister’s remarks, but later withdrew it 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”.
Late on Saturday night, Sarma hit back at the AIBOC statement in a series of tweets.
He said tea garden workers were being deprived of banking services for the last 70 years due to procedural lapses and lack of alertness on part of local banking officials. Marginalised workers, he added, were not able to access the Rs 5,000 transferred to bank accounts of tea garden workers by the state government.
He expressed gratitude to Sitharaman for “championing the cause of these deprived workers” and for her proactive stance in solving the problem. Government sources said his tweets seemed to confirm the outburst and the audio clip were genuine.
1/5 SBI Tea Garden Issue: 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. @nsitharaman @FinMinIndia pic.twitter.com/cSBf2khwXz
— Himanta Biswa Sarma (@himantabiswa) March 14, 2020
Quoting Sarma’s tweet, Sitharaman also tweeted the statement of AIBOC which said that it was withdrawing its earlier statement and that it was “erroneously issued”.
— Nirmala Sitharaman (@nsitharaman) March 14, 2020
This report has been updated with tweets of Sarma and Sitharaman.