PSU Bankers Speak Of Soaring Covid Infections Among Staffers In Meet With RBI
Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

PSU Bankers Speak Of Soaring Covid Infections Among Staffers In Meet With RBI

A meeting between public sector bankers and the Reserve Bank of India would typically focus on bad loans and capital. But this Wednesday when bankers joined a virtual meeting with RBI governor Shaktikanta Das they had far more serious concerns on their mind — the soaring cases of Covid-19 infections among their frontline staff.

Bankers told Das that by their estimates as many as 14-22% of public sector bank staffers have been infected by the Covid-19 virus, two bankers who attended the meeting told BloombergQuint on condition of anonymity.

While the second wave of the pandemic has put citizens across the entire country at risk, services like banking, where certain functions can’t be performed remotely, are at greater risk. Banking services have been exempt from lockdowns imposed across states just like they were when the nationwide lockdown was announced last year.

But the second wave of Covid-19 infections has been more virulent and bank staffers have seen a surge in infections, which has been followed by deaths.

More bank employees have passed away due to the Covid-19 pandemic in the last 45 days, than all of 2020, public sector bankers told the Governor.

Public sector banks are not alone in facing these risks. In early May, Uday Kotak had said that Kotak Mahindra Bank Ltd. has lost 17 employees in April, equal to the number they had lost in all of the last financial year. Kotak said his bank would restrict office staff further to reduce the risk of infections among staffers.

Also read: Covid Kills Over 1,000 Bank Employees as Virus Ravages India

Customers wearing protective masks approach a Kotak Mahindra Bank Ltd. branch on a near-empty street in Mumbai, India. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)
Customers wearing protective masks approach a Kotak Mahindra Bank Ltd. branch on a near-empty street in Mumbai, India. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

While expressing his condolences on the lives lost, Governor Das advised bank chiefs to put protocols in place to reduce exposure of staffers.

Das reiterated that the government is pushing for priority vaccination for bank employees, as they had been identified as frontline workers last year, according to the bankers quoted above. On May 14, Financial Services Secretary Debasish Panda had written a letter to Chief Secretaries of all states requesting priority vaccination for bank employees.

The bank chiefs informed Das that the sector had implemented strict time limits for bank branches across the country and had been reducing physical interactions with customers, unless absolutely necessary.

In many cases, these restrictions are inevitably impacting operations.

According to a general manager working at Bank of Baroda’s Lucknow branch, a number of members of the financial inclusion team had been affected by the second wave and were unable to work. Moreover, rising deaths within the organisation have left employees, who are still working, fearful, this person said speaking on condition of anonymity.

An SBI general manager, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said they have seen rising infections and fatalities among business correspondents as well as staffers. As a result, the zonal managers had to suspend deposit collections in a lot of villages, this person said.

Other Issues Discussed

During the meeting, the RBI governor also took stock of the various schemes announced by the central bank. On May 5, the RBI has reopened the one-time restructuring scheme for small businesses and retail borrowers.

“He (RBI Governor) impressed upon the banks to quickly implement the measures announced by RBI recently in the right earnest,” the RBI said in a statement on Wednesday. “He also urged the banks to continue focussing on steps to enhance the resilience of their balance sheets.”

According to the bankers cited earlier, some state-run banks had already begun the process of announcing their restructuring policies to their borrowers. While boards of most banks have working on finalising policies, work has seen delays as officials are working from home.

Bank chiefs sought some additional relief as well.

They suggested a lowering of provisions against restructured loans to 5% from 10% earlier. They also asked that small business accounts restructured for a second time be exempt from the NPA tag.

The Indian Banks’ Association will be collating all the requests bankers have made to the RBI and will be creating a formal list which will be shared with the RBI, one of the two bank CEOs quoted above said.

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