Assam Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has thanked Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman for "championing the cause of deprived workers" after an audio clip of her lashing out at State Bank India (SBI) chairman Rajnish Kumar went viral, triggering a major controversy.
In the leaked audio clip apparently recorded by one of those present at a meeting last month in Guwahati, Ms Sitharaman is heard shouting at Mr Kumar for botched paperwork involving accounts of tea garden workers, calling SBI "inefficient" and "a heartless bank", reports said.
"Don't tell me you are the largest bank. You are a heartless bank. SLBCs (State Level Bankers' Committees) don't function like this," she is heard as saying. "Yeh nahin chalega (this can't go on)," she appears to be saying twice targeting the SBI chairman.
"Sarkar kar rahi, Pradhan mantra ji bol rahe hain ke bagan mein kaam karne wale workers... You should have approached the department, made the department talk to RBI," Ms Sitharaman said.
"I am sorry to be sounding so harsh. I will see what I can do with RBI... But nothing makes up for your inefficiency... Let me be very blunt on this... It's your inefficiency which cost it," she said.
According to reports, Ms Sitharaman's outburst came over the lapses in KYC or Know Your Customer processes for bank accounts of tea garden workers that prevented them from receiving funds transferred by the government under its direct benefit transfer scheme.
After the audio clip of the meeting emerged, the All India Bank Officers Confederation condemned the incident in a statement but later withdrew it.
"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," a statement by the organisation had 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," it added.
Amid growing controversy over Ms Sitharaman's outburst, Himanta Biswa Sarma defended the Finance Minister, saying, "It appears that the All India Bank Officers' Confederation has not understood the context."
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@FinMinIndiapic.twitter.com/cSBf2khwXz— Himanta Biswa Sarma (@himantabiswa) March 14, 2020
2/5 Subsequently, we transferred an incentive amount of Rs 5000 in each account. These workers, who belong to one of most marginalised sections of our state, have been deprived of banking services for the last 70 years. @nsitharaman@FinMinIndia— Himanta Biswa Sarma (@himantabiswa) March 14, 2020
3/5 Due to procedural lapses & lack of alertness on part of local banking officials, a sizeable section of these workers were being deprived of their rightful dues as they could not withdraw their own money from these accounts. @nsitharaman@FinMinIndia— Himanta Biswa Sarma (@himantabiswa) March 14, 2020
"I'm grateful to @nsitharaman for championing the cause of these deprived workers. After her intervention, Assam Govt is working closely with the public sector banks of the region to ensure financial inclusion for the most underprivileged sections of society (sic)," Mr Sarma said.
"The state of Assam will remain eternally grateful to our Union FM Smt @nsitharaman for such proactive stance abd I strongly oppose the statement given by by All India Bank Officers Association (sic)," he added.