news Tuesday, July 14, 2015 - 05:30
  At the end of a nine-year old battle, a clerical staff brought the Chennai zone of India’s largest and oldest existing bank to its knees – the Madras High Court told the State Bank of India that it could not fire him for exposing corruption in some of the bank’s Tamil Nadu branches. “I have had 17 cases filed against me and there have been at least four attempts to murder me in the last 10 years,” says S Gunasekar, Special Assistant at the bank's main branch at Anna Salai, Chennai. An employee of the bank since 1980, he is now the General Secretary of the State Bank of India’s Ambedkar Trade Union. He and two others – former Trade Union president MV Thangaswamy and treasurer G Arasukumar – exposed a series of irregularities committed allegedly by officers in various branches in Tamil Nadu including embezzlement, fraud, and misconduct. For his efforts, Gunasekar was dismissed from his post as a special assistant at the bank’s Anna Salai branch in Chennai on 6, February 2015 after 35 years of service after being hounded with numerous court cases. A student union leader at Pachaiyappa's College in Chennai in the late 1970s, Gunasekar has an MA in Economics. “Have I killed or stabbed someone, stolen from someone, gobbled up land? What crime have I committed? I have only pointed out irregularities in bank operations,” he says. Taking the management head on, Gunasekar challenged his dismissal in the Madras High Court. On July 1, the court passed an order that reinstated him. A bench of justices V Ramasubramanian and K Ravichandrabaabu rapped the SBI for dragging its employees through years of legal proceedings and filing defamation suits against them when the employees in question exposed irregularities. Missing money The story began in 2006, when Gunasekar, Thangaswamy and Arasukumar complained to the Reserve Bank of India about large amounts of money disappearing from various branches in the state. They said that although currency notes worth several lakhs of rupees in Avinashi (Coimbatore), Rasipuram (Salem) and Aminjikarai (Chennai) had gone missing, no action had been taken by the management. The union did not stop at just a complaint. They put up posters in public areas and issued hand bills against bank officers for being negligent. In response, the bank slapped civil defamation suit against the Union and its three office-bearers claiming damages of Rs 11 lakh. This opened the flood gates for a series of show cause notices, appeals, stay orders and vacation of stay orders that lasted almost a decade. Irregularities and complaints Gunasekar and his fellow unionists also highlighted misuse of the Leave Fare Concession (LFC) in Tamil Nadu in multiple ways. The rules permitted employees to claim concessions for travel with their family within the country. But employees would rope in travel agencies to organize a circuitous route (one Indian city to another via international destinations) so that they could visit foreign countries. Employees would claim money not just for travel but also other expenses on the trip.  Gunasekar had brought such misuse in Tamil Nadu to the notice of the Central Vigilance Commission, which eventually led to a change in rules. Gunasekar’s nose for irregularities also led him to figure out along with his sources that in several branches in the state, the SBI was giving low-interest agricultural loans meant for farmers to those who were not eligible, such as pawn brokers. “In some areas, they get spurious ornaments from pawn brokers,” Gunasekar alleged. He had complained to the RBI that a pawn broker was given a loan of Rs 75 lakh against spurious gold. Officers responsible were suspended in 2010 at the Ambur branch. After this discovery, he wrote to the RBI, the Ministry of Finance, and SBI’s Chief General Manager. Following investigations, notices were sent to SBI branches across the country calling for more stringent checks while approving loans.  In 2014, after yet another round of pamphlet distribution SBI issued a show cause notice to Gunasekar, who got a stay order against further action by the bank. After a protracted legal battle, he was dismissed from service on February 7. In its judgement on July 1, 2015, Madras High Court rubbished the bank’s claims of damage to its reputation. The court pointed out the bank had only taken “exception” to the posters but not denied the contents of those posters regarding the missing money. The court also said: “It is unfortunate that a public sector bank like the SBI should file a (defamation) suit not only claiming damages for loss of reputation, but also seeking for a prior restraint on the trade union in publishing hand bills, posters and putting up placards,” said. “A mere demand for the resignation of the Chief General Manager owning moral responsibility, cannot be a defamatory statement.”  “Exposing the inaction of the bank in the light of series of cash shortages can only be in public interest and making such statements cannot be detrimental to the interest of the bank. As pointed out earlier, the bank itself expects its officers to take all possible steps to ensure and protect interest of the bank. Publishing or exposing the cash shortages in the bank and the inaction of the top officers cannot amount to willful damage to the property of the bank.” The battle is not over yet Getting his job back does not mean that the battle is over. Three civil defamation cases are pending in court, but the legal battle does not intimidate him. “Forget the legal proceedings, I will handle it. (But) they are giving me a lot of trouble, and corruption has gone on endlessly. I will continue to do what I’ve been doing,” he says. However, Gunasekar finds himself fighting a lonely battle – his fellow unionists have now distanced themselves from issues concerning the organisation. The two other named in the case no longer hold their positions in the Trade Union.  Rattling off several complaints, Gunasekar says: “Look at all the corruption tainting the organization. As long as I’m the general secretary of the state bank trade union, I have the right to do this,” he says. However, he says no official position is really required to tackle corruption. “I dont need the position of a trade union leader to expose corruption to the public. (If I was a regular employee) I would not have the money to put out posters like I do now (through trade union funds), but I will still be writing complaints no matter what,” he says. How does he unearth the corruption? “The court also asked me where I get all this information from. But this is my right. I don’t need to reveal my sources,” he says. Asked why he does this, Gunasekar says simply: “It is your money, my money, everyone’s money that I’m talking about.”  
Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.