Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country last year, banks have been among the handful of essential services that operated fully, across the country, unless infections resulted in temporary closure of branches. Predictably, bankers have been among the worst hit by the pandemic too, something that is not often spoken about. Many have taken ill, been hospitalised, and it is said that over 1,300 people working in banks have died due to COVID-19.
Data provided by the Indian Banks' Association shows 600 bank employees lost their lives due to coronavirus infection till January 2021, during the first wave. However, the death tally has now more than doubled, with 1,300 people estimated to have lost their lives till mid-April 2021, when the second wave was peaking.
Bankers are an especially susceptible lot, as their job necessitates dealing with people. A reason why they were upset about not being given priority during vaccination. Bankers point out that the high number of infections, with more than a lakh bankers testing positive across the country as per data, is due to many factors, including customers not really following COVID-19 etiquette once inside the bank, and the lack of roster system, which results in more infection among people at work. According to the Central Bank of India, 4,878 employees have been infected with the coronavirus infection and 94 have died. According to some reports, around 1000 employees of State Bank of India alone contracted the infection during the second wave while the number stood at 500 for the Union Bank of India.
Plight of rural bankers
Rajendran*, a junior banker working in the rural branch of a nationalised bank in Krishnagiri district, says that it is traumatic to head to work every day, knowing some colleague or the other has tested positive. â€śLast Sunday, my colleague who was at work till Saturday tested positive. I reported for work on Monday. We informed the Municipality, but they have not yet come to sanitise our premises. While I have received one dose of the vaccine, I know that every time I enter the office, it is risky. Many of us are in panic.â€ť
It does not help that quite a few customers do not follow COVID-19 norms, Rajendran says, adding: â€śThey walk in without masks, and if we point it out, they use challan slips to cover their face. They refuse to use sanitisers, insisting their hands turn sticky. They think it is disrespectful to speak with masks on, and move the barricades we put up and crowd counters. All of this affects us and this is why infections are spiralling in banks.â€ť
Also, bankers say that though there is a provision for it, there are no roster-based shifts in rural branches, and many a time, they are denied leave even if unwell. â€śI recently took my first dose and was not feeling well, but had to report to work,â€ť points out Rajendran.
â€śThe roster system is also not followed in rural areas due to manpower shortage. So, there is no time for detection of illness or recovery. Hence, the government should at least declare that only essential banking services will be provided during this period,â€ť the banker says.
This is what CH Venkatachalam, General Secretary of the All India Bank Employee Association, told TNM too: â€śThe high infection rate is because we are in contact with a lot of customers. It would be helpful if the government restricted banking to certain essential transactions and financial help during emergencies,â€ť he adds.
In conversations on social media, among the complaints of younger people parenting their parents has been their fondness to go to the bank or post office to update passbooks or submit forms, all of which can be done online.
The All India Bank Employeesâ€™ Association has also drawn up a list of other demands for the government, including priority for vaccination, facilitating transport to reach banks during the lockdown and conducting discussion with unions. In the metros, bankers have found it especially hard to reach their workplaces, as they usually depend on local trains or shared cabs. For instance, in a place like Mumbai, people need an essential service pass to take the local train. And not all bank employees manage to get one.In fact, on May 11, the state government informed the Bombay High Court that bank employees will no longer be allowed to travel in local trains, metro trains and monorails in view of increasing Covid cases across the city.
CH Venkatachalam, in a recent letter to Sunil Mehta, CEO of Indian Banks' Association (IBA), Mumbai, urged banks to provide vaccination on priority. In the letter, he said, â€śOur cry to treat bank employees under priority for vaccination was not taken seriously by the government and now only some 'requests' are being sent to the State governments. Even now, there is no directive to this effect from the Union Government. Bank employees feel ignored by the government while they have been doing their duty and serving the people with all the risks.â€ť In a request last month, the Finance Ministry requested the chief secretaries of the state government to provide COVID-19 vaccination for bankers on a priority basis in the third phase starting from May 1.
Only very few states like Punjab and Karnataka have recently announced that they will vaccinate bank staff on priority, while some are doing it unofficially. In most other states, the priority list does not include bank employees. In Telangana for example, LPG delivery staff, fair price shop dealers, petrol pump workers, auto and cab drivers, kirana shop and liquor shops employees are given priority other than healthcare workers. In Andhra Pradesh, 175 bank employees have died in the second wave, according to the United Forum of Bank Unions (UFBU). However, the state is yet to respond to the demand that bank employees be given priority for vaccination. In Kerala, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has said that bank employees are a priority, however the onus has been placed on the banks to organise vaccination drives. Tamil Nadu has said that all government staff and also workers in essential industries are on their priority list, but banks have not been mentioned specifically.
Rajendran said it was not enough to vaccinate bankers alone and that their families should also be vaccinated. â€śWe go back home every day after meeting so many people, and even though we isolate ourselves as far as possible, our families are rendered vulnerable too. Vaccination will keep them safe too.â€ť
Meanwhile, The All India Bank Employeesâ€™ Association has also demanded that state governments facilitate easier transportation to reach banks, since many employees and officers have faced humiliation, ill-treatment, manhandling and abuses from local police personnel while travelling to work. Rajendran said, â€śBank employees are transferred even during the lockdown so the transportation becomes hard and many police personnel are asking for multiple proofs. Though the e-registration system is better than the e-pass system. Still there are hiccups at some places.â€ť
Venkatachalam also urged the government to issue a weekly bulletin on the number of people in the banking sector testing positive for the virus and the deaths due to novel coronavirus.
During the first wave, all banks except cooperative banks said that they would provide Rs 20 lakh as compensation to the legal heir of the employees, who succumbed due to COVID-19 during service.
However, the kin opine that the relief alone is not enough for them and urge the union and state governments to soon provide a government job as promised to help them with running their families. In the case of Elumalai, a bank employee from Hosur who succumbed to the novel coronavirus infection on May 2, he has left behind his wife, who works as a sweeper/helper in another bank nearby and his 22-year-old daughter is studying for an integrated commerce degree.
Her semester fees are due by this month but the family is already struggling to pay the sum, said Elumalaiâ€™s sister-in-law. â€śWe spent a lot during his hospitalization and my sister only works as a helper in the bank doing menial jobs like sweeping. She is paid Rs 6,000 per month and the pay is cut if she doesn't report to work.
The bank has given only Rs 30,000 till now as compensation and they may disburse funds only after we are able to submit all the documents. But the compensation will not be enough and my sisterâ€™s only hope is her daughter. So the government should soon give her employment in government service,â€ť she said.
Though most states are on lockdown, they are expected to open up in a matter of weeks. Whatâ€™s worrying most bankers is that once lockdowns are eased, the number of people visiting banks will automatically increase. With vaccination across India not progressing effectively, this once again places all bank employees at risk.