The nationwide strike against the move to privatise public sector banks and “retrograde” reforms continued for the second day on Tuesday.

The strike was called by the United Forum of Bank Unions, an umbrella body of nine bank unions. This will lead to a four-day break in regular operations as banks were already closed on Saturday and Sunday. Around half a lakh employees of public sector banks, old generation private sector and foreign banks did not attend work on Tuesday, according to PTI.

The unions have warned that they are prepared to continue the agitation for a longer period, like the the largest farmers’ protest in India in three decades, the Hindustan Times reported. Thousands of farmers have camped outside Delhi since December, demanding that Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeal the three farm laws that open up the country’s agriculture markets to private companies.

Private banks, like HDFC Bank, ICICI Bank, Kotak Mahindra Bank, Axis Bank and IndusInd Bank were not affected and continued their operations as usual. However, these account for only one-third of banking services in the country.

All India Bank Officers Association General Secretary Sowmya Dutta said the Narendra Modi government’s policies will have an adverse effect on the economy, adding that this will show in the upcoming Assembly elections.

“All banking services are impacted from cash withdrawals to deposits, business transactions, passbook updation, loan process, cheque clearing, account opening and business transactions,” he said.

Dutta said the bank employees took out rallies wherever they were permitted to do so. “If the government does not listen to them, they will go for an even bigger, indefinite strike, on the lines of the ongoing farmers’ agitation,” he added. “We are connected with crores of population through our branches, we are educating our customers about the government’s ill policies and how it is going to impact them.”

In a statement, the All India Bank Employees’ Association said that the privatisation of banks was a negative move for developing countries such as India. “Indian public sector banks represent the hard-earned savings of the people,” the statement said. “Privatisation of banks would risk their savings as many private banks in the past have collapsed and people lost their savings.”

Meanwhile, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi expressed solidarity with the protesting bank unions and criticised the Centre for the privatisation move.

“The central government is privatising profit and nationalising loss,” the Congress leader tweeted. “Selling public sector banks to Modi’s friends gravely compromises India’s financial security. I am with the bank employees who are on strike.”

Monday strike

Banking services such as cash withdrawals, deposits, cheque clearances and remittances were affected across public sector banks on Monday, according to PTI. Union leaders claimed that around 10 lakh bank employees joined the strike.

All India Bank Employees Association General Secretary CH Venkatachalam told PTI that banking operations were “paralysed” in all centres. “Clearing of cheques could not happen since branches are not accepting cheques for clearance as branches are closed,” he added. “On an average, about 2 crore cheques/instruments worth about Rs 16,500 crore are held up for clearance.”

As per the data given by the bank unions, a total of 2.01 crore cheque instruments worth Rs 16,500 crore could not be processed at the three national grids Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi. In Mumbai alone, around 86 lakh cheques and instruments worth Rs 6,500 crore were not cleared, union leaders claimed.

A bank official said Monday’s strike witnessed 100% participation from scale I, II and III bank employees. “These are assistant managers, managers and senior managers,” he added. “At this level, there is 100% participation in the strike and 80-90% branches are headed by them.”

Why are bank unions protesting?

In the Budget presented on February 1, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had announced the privatisation of two public sector banks, apart from IDBI bank, as part of the government’s disinvestment plan to generate Rs 1.75 lakh crore.

While Sitharaman did not mention the names shortlisted for privatisation, Reuters reported on February 15 that it includes Bank of Maharashtra, Bank of India, Indian Overseas Bank and the Central Bank of India.

Workers are opposing the privatisation move as it could put their jobs at risk. According to estimates from bank unions, Bank of India employs about 50,000 workers, Central Bank of India has 33,000 staff, Indian Overseas Bank has a workforce of 26,000, while Bank of Maharashtra has about 13,000 employees.

“In the conciliation meeting held by the Additional Chief Labour Commissioner on March 4, 9 and 10, from United Forum of Bank Unions we offered to reconsider the strike provided the government would reconsider their decision,” the All India Bank Employees Association said in a statement. “Government did not agree to our offer. Hence the strike has been forced upon us.”