Mumbai -To fix whistleblower, bank moves from verse to worse


ALOK DESHPANDE, The Hindu, June 13, 2013 

Embarrassed by revelations about its curious dealings with corporate clients, the Bank of Maharashtra has declared war on whistleblowers. File photo
The Hindu–Embarrassed by revelations about its curious dealings with corporate clients, the Bank of Maharashtra has declared war on whistleblowers. File photo

Union leader Devidas Tuljapurkar faces victimisation and possible dismissal by the Bank of Maharashtra, as it suspects him of being the whistleblower behind a story in “The Hindu” on July 7, 2012.

For one unfortunate whistleblower, things have gone from verse to worse. Embarrassed by revelations about its curious dealings with corporate clients, the Bank of Maharashtra has declared war on whistleblowers. And since it can’t pinpoint them, the bank has gone after internal critics on novel grounds. It has chargesheeted a Union leader and ex-Director of the BoM for acts “prejudicial to the interests of the Bank.” That is, for publishing 19 years ago, a poem it calls ‘vulgar and obscene,’ in the Union’s in-house magazine, ‘Bulletin.’ That poem is the basis of the Bank’s charge sheet against a worker with an impeccable service record.

In 1984, the Marathi poet Vasant Dattatraya Gurjar wrote a satirical poem titledGandhi Mala Bhetla Hota (Gandhi met me) which shook the literary world with its polemical content. In 2013, Devidas Tuljapurkar, General Secretary of the All-India Bank of Maharashtra Employees Federation, faces victimisation and possible dismissal by the bank, ostensibly because the Bulletin, of which he was editor, carried that poem in 1994!

The real reasons for going after Mr. Tuljapurkar appear to have little to do with poetry and seem far more prosaic. He has been a thorn in the flesh of his management. Both, as an alert employee and, for a while, as Workman Director on the bank’s Board. He has also drawn the RBI’s attention to the BoM’s odd handling of some corporate accounts and advances which, he charges, are being favoured at the expense of BoM’s main depositors — lakhs of small farmers, working people and retired employees. But the BoM leadership has something more against him. They suspect him — with no basis or proof — of being the whistleblower behind a story in The Hindu, July 7, 2012. That story exposed how the bank had granted a Rs. 150-crore loan to a defaulter owing BoM Rs. 40 crore by greatly weakening the terms of the original sanction letter. The defaulter company was a part of the United Breweries (UB) group headed by Vijay Mallya. The expose embarrassed Bank Chairman and Managing Director (CMD) Narendra Singh, sparking a whistleblower witch-hunt.

But no whistleblower was found. And after several transfers of senior officers within the bank, the search hit a dead-end. Ironically, it was an unthinking action of the Reserve Bank of India that handed the BoM management a scapegoat: Devidas Tuljapurkar.

Mr. Tuljapurkar told The Hindu, “Last October, I wrote a letter to RBI Governor D. Subba Rao highlighting questionable corporate advances and imprudent banking decisions of BoM at the instance of CMD Narendra Singh.” The letter, written in his capacity as a Union leader, was backed up with facts and documents. Having served as a Director on the Board of BoM from 2004 to 2009, he was very familiar with the rules and procedures.

However, the RBI failed to protect his identity as a whistleblower. In one of those unthinking acts of bureaucracy, the RBI routinely forwarded Mr. Tuljapurkar’s letter to the very BoM management that it exposed, for their comments. The bank had found its scapegoat and Mr. Tuljapurkar’s ordeal began. “Since I had written a letter to RBI, the management assumed that it was also I who had leaked that story about gifting a Rs. 150-crore loan to Mallya’s company. They wanted to corner me, so they started scanning my history,” he says.

And all they could come up with was a poem from 1984. Vasant Gurjar’s poem is a political satire that is scathing about the followers of Mahatma Gandhi who, in the poet’s view, were merely serving their own interests. In 1994, the poem was published in the ‘Bulletin’ the house magazine of the Union. In March 1995, an organisation called the ‘Patit Pavan Sanghatana’ filed a complaint against the Bulletin for publishing the ‘obscene’ and ‘vulgar’ poem. As editor of the Bulletin, Mr. Tuljapurkar was made an accused in the case.

This May 3, 19 years later, the BoM management issued an internal charge sheet against Mr. Tuljapurkar. It accuses him of ‘publishing such an inflammatory, vulgar, obscene and objectionable material in the magazine “Bulletin” meant for bank employees …” And claims that circulating that issue of the Bulletin on the BoM’s premises (in 1994) was “prejudicial to the interests of the Bank.”

Interestingly, the ‘State Performances Scrutiny Board, Government of Maharashtra’, headed by well-known Marathi poet F.M. Shinde, has a very different take on the poem. In January 2011 the Scrutiny Board made it clear that the poem is neither obscene nor vulgar. “What Gandhi had envisioned about Swarajya is nowhere to be seen. The poet has expressed this in satirical form,” Mr. Shinde had said.

Apart from ignoring the Board’s view, the BoM seems to take no notice of the Supreme Court’s order in the case against Mr. Tuljapurkar. “After the FIR in 1995, we approached both the sessions court and the High Court to discharge me from the case. But that was rejected and our appeal is pending in the Supreme Court,” he says. “The apex court, in its order dated July 7, 2010, stayed all proceedings in lower courts in this case and the actual trial has not even started in any court.”

The charge sheet accuses Mr. Tuljapurkar of not disclosing this pending litigation against him while serving as the Workman Director of the bank and for knowingly making ‘false statements’ in the forms of the bank. BoM CMD Narendra Singh took personal interest in the entire matter, says Mr. Tuljapurkar. The CMD placed the 19-year old case before the board meeting in January this year, recommending action against the union leader.

All this sidesteps the truth that Mr. Tuljapurkar’s name was mentioned in the FIR as editor of the Bulletin and not in any ‘personal capacity.’ It also ignores the fact that even charges in the case are yet to be framed. Calls, faxes and emails from The Hindu to Mr. Singh have so far drawn no response.

Meanwhile, an outraged All India Bank Employees’ Association (AIBEA), to which Mr. Tuljapurkar’s union is affiliated, has called for an agitation across the entire BoM on June 17. “We demand immediate withdrawal of the charge sheet slapped against him and thorough investigation of loans sanctioned by the bank to various corporates ever since the present chairman took charge,” CH. Venkatachalam, General Secretary, AIBEA, told The Hindu. He added that the BoM being a public sector bank, every citizen had a right to express concern about its financial health. “We shall fight back any attempt at victimisation.”

If the departmental inquiry against Mr. Tuljapurkar proceeds the way bank management wants, it could result in his dismissal. A whistleblower exposing the questionable actions of a public sector bank could be dismissed for publishing a poem in 1994. He is also a man who, while a director of the bank, transferred all the money he received as sitting charges for Board meetings to the Union’s account via cheque, accepting no monetary benefits as a director.

“I wrote to RBI because I found Mr. Singh’s financial moves unhealthy for the bank’s future. Hence I’m being targeted and victimised. They aim to make an example of me so nobody in future will dare raise his voice. It has to be stopped,” he said.

 

The last rites of sick units


Workers wait long enough to get dues after liquidation proceedings

M J Antony  May 21, 2013 BS 

M J Antony

Winding up an industrial unit is usually followed by a swarm of creditors. Financial institutions have the stamina to withstand the laborious procedures under various statutes. But the lifespan of workers is limited. Their families are crushed under the weight of the institutional creditors. Though various laws give workers primacy in the creditors’ queue, it takes them decades to get their dues.

Early this month, the Supreme Court dealt with a case in which the company closed down in 1992, and litigation over the last rites was going on till now. The story has not ended yet. The 50-page judgment ended thus: “The Bombay High Court judgment is set aside. The Debt Recovery Tribunal and the official liquidator shall proceed further now concerning workers’ dues as indicated in this judgment.”

This case, Bank of Maharashtra vs Pandurang, ascended the judicial ladder to reach the Supreme Court, where it was gathering dust since 2005. Half a dozen statutes had to be trawled and, therefore, a larger bench was necessary. The main question was “whether the claims of workers who claim to be entitled to payment pari passuhave to be considered by the official liquidator or by the tribunal”.

The Court set 12 rules as guidelines for the future. They were largely in favour of workers – putting them at the head of the creditors’ queue. Since the tribunal and the liquidator were reviving the proceedings regarding the workers’ dues after more than two decades, the moot question is how many of the workers would be able to enjoy the benefit of the final order if it was in their favour.

This case is not unique. Many such disputes are still at the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR) or the tribunal stages, and have a long way to reach the high courts or the Supreme Court. A few weeks ago, a similar dispute over the claim of workers was decided after a decade. The court ruled that their dues under the Industrial Disputes Act and the Payment of Gratuity Act shall have preference over that of the state financial corporation (Karnataka State Finance Corporation vs Industrial Workers’ General Union). Though the authorities allowed their claims, the labour commissioner, suspiciously, did not take action for a long time and the corporation sold the assets, leading to appeals up to the Supreme Court.

There are several statutes involved in such disputes. Though the Companies Act grants high priority to workers’ claims, Sections 529 and 529A dealing with disbursement of sums from the sale of assets of a failed company are couched in complex clauses, leading to long-winded litigation. Then, there are laws like the Insolvency Actthat have to be taken into account. In the constant tug of war between workers and the secured creditors, courts sway. In one case, Jitendra Nath vs Official Liquidator, the judges were divided 2:1. The Jharkhand High Court gave its judgment in favour of the banks and financial institutions. The workers moved the Supreme Court. It allowed their appeal. Hoping to end such disputes, the Court laid down a four-point formula.

Then, there are laws like the Sick Industries Act, under which the BIFR has been set up. While the board tries to revive sick units, payments of dues are usually suspended till a final decision. The law and its implementation are prone to gross misuse of various kinds, and the Act itself was supposed to give place to a new one. But the old law continues to burden the courts and the parties involved. The shrewd ones manipulate the provisions to their advantage.

Earlier judgments of the court have not put an end to the priority issue. In NTC Workers’ Union vs P R Ramakrishnan, the court had stated that there was an obligation to see that “no secured or unsecured creditors, including banks or financial institutions, are paid before the workmen’s dues are paid”. But this view was seen to have been diluted by a later judgment in the case, Andhra Bank vs Official Liquidator. That judgment stated that an earlier judgment in the case of Allahabad Bank vs Canara Bank did not lay down the correct law and its propositions were at best “stray observations”. The recent judgments show that there are several loose ends to the problems raised in winding up proceedings, amalgamation and transformation.

It is well known that there is a general dilution of labour laws in recent decades. The old and existing laws have not received a second look for long – either due to other preoccupations like rushing to the well of the Houses, or as a result of malign neglect. The fluctuating judicial decisions regarding workers’ dues when an industrial unit closes down add to their woes.

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