VRS in The Banking Industry



The development strategies of India in the post Independence period 1950-1990, were implemented with a view to having high levels of growth, high public savings and self-reliance. The central and the leading role for industrialization were assigned to the State. The primary emphasis was on increasing the domestic savings rate by suppressing consumption, high taxation, and appropriating income through ownership of commercial enterprises. The role of the financial system was also limited to providing incentives for savings and capital accumulation as interest rates were controlled. The actual results fell far below the expectations. India showed one of the lowest rates of growth in the developing world with rising public deficits and periodic balance of payment crises. In the period between 1950 and 1990, India's growth averaged less than 5% per annum, and per capita income growth was less than 2% per annum. This period showed a growth rate of 5.2% per annum in the developing world, including the Sub-Saharan Africa and the least developed countries (Jalan, in Kapila, 2002).

The strategy which was expected to reduce dependency on foreign aid and foreign trade, in fact resulted in greater dependence on aid and foreign assistance from abroad. The astonishing success of Japan and East Asian countries in accelerating their rates of growth by relying on the market- oriented pattern of industrialization changed the perceptions of the policy makers. The collapse of Soviet Union and the acceptance of market-led development strategies by all countries of Eastern Europe also forced a re-look at the State dominated development paradigm.

Liberalization of Indian Economy

To overcome an acute economic crisis in 1991, the Government of India introduced a number of measures to improve the working of the economy. These measures, spread over a number of years, had two broad objectives. One was the reorientation of the economy from a static, centrally directed and highly controlled economy to a more 'market-friendly' one. The reduction in direct controls and physical planning was expected to improve the efficiency of the economy. It was to be made more open to external trade and external flows through a reduction in trade barriers and liberalization of foreign investment policies. The second objective was macro-economic stabilization. This was to be achieved through reducing fiscal deficits substantially and government's draft on society's savings.

The common feature of the various policy measures introduced since 1991 has been the improvement of the efficiency of the system. The regulatory mechanism, involving multitudes of controls, had fragmented the capacity and reduced the competition even in the private sector. The thrust of the New Economic Policy (NEP) had been towards creating a more competitive environment in the country as a means to improving the productivity and efficiency of the system. The industrial policy sought to bring about a greater competitive environment domestically. The trade policy sought to improve the international competitiveness subject to the degree of protection offered by the tariffs.  Private sector was given more space to operate in as much as some of the areas reserved exclusively earlier for the public sector. The public sector had to compete with the private sector even though the public sector continued to play a dominant role. An improvement in the functioning of the various entities was sought to be achieved (Rangarajan, 2002).

A strong and efficient financial system is crucial to the attainment of the objectives of creating a market-driven, productive and competitive economy, to support higher investment levels and to accentuate the growth. The financial sector reforms since 1992, as part of a broader programme of structural reforms, were aimed at the creation of such a system.

The Indian Banking System

The Banking system in India has several outstanding achievements to its credit, the most striking of which is its reach. An extensive banking network has been established in the past thirty years. Indian banks are now spread out into the length and breadth of the nation. The significant achievement is the close association of India's banking system with the country's development efforts. The diversification and development of Indian economy and the acceleration of the growth process are in no small measure due to the active role that banks have played in financing economic activities in different sectors (Sukumaran, 1996). It should be recognized that the banking system is an integral part of the financial sector of the economy.

The Indian banking system comprises of commercial banks and co-operative banks. Commercial banks which dominate the banking scene in India have an extensive spread of branches. Commercial banking sector consists of scheduled and non-scheduled banks (a categorisation by the Reserve Bank of India). The scheduled commercial banks are characterized by the predominance of public sector component which includes State Bank of India and its associate banks, other nationalized banks and regional rural banks. The private sector consists of old private banks, new private banks and foreign banks operating in India. Cooperative banks also render service mainly in the area of rural credit.

Historical background

Banking has been present in India since the early days. The coinage and currency system has its roots in Indian History. Indian banking developed in the early part of the 20th century mostly under ethnic and regional setups. Communities and regions started banks to serve their needs. These banks served sectarian interests without a national outlook. Banks followed thumb rules to lend money to industries and traders. The large number of rural and semi urban centres in India were devoid of banking facility. The objective of nationalization of banks were to make the administrative set up of the banks to conform to the norms specified by the government, to make credit easily available to sectors like agriculture, small-scale industry and exports which had been neglected so far. It also enabled greater mobilization of savings through bank deposits and widened the branch network especially in the rural and semi urban areas.

Nationalisation of banks

Nationalisation of banks resulted in a rapid expansion of banking activities in the country. After about two decades of nationalisation there was almost a tenfold increase in the number of branches with considerable spread in rural and semi urban areas. Commercial banks assumed a dominant role in financing agriculture and allied activities. There was large scale financing of exports, small scale industries, technical entrepreneurs, self-employed professionals, small artisans and so on. This resulted in the creation of a new segment of prosperity in the country. These achievements were primarily due to nationalisation and policy of development banking by the State-owned banks.

Most of the objectives of nationalisation of the banks were achieved, but at the cost of the efficiency. There were annual targets for mobilization, targets for the priority sector lending and for opening branches in rural and semi rural centres. Priority was not given to achieve profitability or providing earning and strengthening the capital base. The health of banks is determined by a variety of factors, the most significant being a strong capital base, adequate provisioning, the nature of investments made, the quality of asset management, the skill and commitment of officials, quantity  and quality of information, the internal incentive mechanisms and the nature of governmental interference by the monetary authorities. Almost all of these parameters for healthy development of banking were forsaken or neglected.

The International Financial Markets witnessed revolutionary structural changes in terms of the nature of lenders and borrowers in the early eighties. There was a declining role for the banks in financial intermediation but an enormous increase in securities lending, the growth of new financial facilities of raising funds directly from investors. There was also the growth of techniques like interest rate swaps, financial and foreign exchange and interest rate options. Though such changes were taking place globally the Indian banks were completely insulated till the early nineties. The banks were controlled and operated in effect by the dictates of the Reserve Bank of India and the Finance Ministry. There was no initiative by the management and the senior executives of the banks. Banks were not allowed to recruit directly. An external Banking Recruitment Agency was set up for the purpose to cover the entire country. The huge work force consisted predominantly of clerical and last grade staff enjoying a high wage structure. The top management executives were not attracted to the nationalized banks because of the low remuneration in comparison with the private sector.

Banking has undergone a profound transformation owing to the changes in the global financial system. Banks had to operate with a wide variety of financial assets and liabilities. Specialized markets have come into being for each class of financial instruments and banks have to transact business in various segments of the financial market. Active global capital movements and growing volume of cross border trade in financial services had exerted pressure for the reorientation and refocusing of activities. The challenges to the established Public Sector Banks (PSBs) were many from both within and outside the banking system. Other financial intermediaries increasingly focused on core competencies and niche strategies. The easing of barriers to entry and exit has increased the competition and resulted in greater number of participants in the various segments of the financial market. There has been a plethora of new financial products and innovations in market practices.

Financial Sector reforms

As a part of the structural economic reforms, the reform of the banking sector took place. The banking system is the most dominant segment of the financial sector accounting for about two thirds of the assets of the organized financial sector. The reform measures followed the recommendations of the Committee on the Financial System (CFS) (1991) and the Narasimham Committee (1998).

The Report of the Narasimham Committee (1998) provided a frame work for the second generation reforms. A broad categorization of these reforms could be:

i. Actions that need to be taken to strengthen the foundations of the banking system;
ii. Related to this, streamlining procedures, upgrading technology and human resource development, and
iii. Structural changes in the system (Kapila, 2002).

The financial reforms in India proceeded in four major directions. First, setting the policy conditions right and removing the operational constraints of the financial system. The second change was in the area of creating a more competitive environment through reform measures such as relaxation of entry and exit norms, reduction in the public ownership in banking industry and letting banks access the capital market for meeting their fund requirement. The third important decision was the strengthening of market institutions and allowing greater freedom for market intermediaries. The fourth important element of reform concerned the safety aspects of the financial system.

There has been an increasing blurring of the boundaries between the role of banks and financial institutions. Banks are also going on a phase of convergence wherein most of the banks are offering an entire range of products and services to both retail as well as wholesale customers. Technology has broadened the horizon of banking business and in the context of deregulation; it has contributed to the emergence of a more open, competitive and globalised financial market.

Labour market reforms

The labour market in the organized sector in India was more rigid than in other developing countries. It has been widely accepted that the labour productivity in India is very low. This along with 'rigidities' created by the institutional framework within which labour market functions, was one of the major reasons for the 'uncompetitiveness' of the Indian industry in the international markets. It is important to recognize that there are important social reasons why labour markets are unique and labour being the weaker party in employer-employee relationships, legislations to protect labour is necessary. They exist in all civilized countries.

Legislations should provide a structure that encourages labour productivity and give flexibility to restructure the producing units when it is inevitable because of market reforms and technological changes. But the legislations had the unintended result of reducing new employment in the organized sector.

Legislations by the Government of India such as The Industrial Disputes Act 1947, Indian Trade Unions Act 1926 and Industrial Employment (Standing Orders, 1946) were framed in order to look after the welfare of the workers. For the same reason, termination of workers -for whatever reason- is a long term process due to the legal impediments inherent in such enactments. These Industrial Relations Acts and Labour Legislations prevented the employer from removing any employee from their rolls. It is immaterial whether such removal is legitimate and in the best interests of Human Resources (HR) optimization in that industry.

The leaders of the Indian industry were of the opinion that many provisions of the labour laws were also major impediments in employment generation. The difficulty in retrenching labour when necessary discouraged the employers from taking in more personnel. They opted for more capital intensive technology, resorted to multiplication of units rather than expansion and relied on temporary labour. They were lobbying for reforms and overhaul of these laws. Policy makers in Government were also in favour of modernizing the labour market policies, legislations and institutions. Such polices made it difficult for Indian industries to adjust quickly to changing circumstances which put them at a serious disadvantage in the era of globalization and rapid technological change. But worker's unions feared that the dilution of the existing laws will give unfettered authority to employers to 'hire and fire' at will and would therefore, be detrimental to the interests of the labour.

Voluntary Retirement Scheme

Notwithstanding the negative attitude of the unions, broad discussions between the Government, industry and labour gave way to the introduction of a number of reforms in the labour market. One of the major fall-outs of these reforms has been the generation of redundancies in the Indian industrial sector. Both public and the private sector units started reducing their work force over the last one-decade under 'early separation schemes' known as Voluntary Retirement Schemes (VRS).

The word 'retire' has been defined in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary as 'Cease from office or give up office or professional employment'. 'Voluntary' means 'without compulsion or willingly'. Thus Voluntary Retirement is an act on the part of the employee to give up employment willingly and without compulsion from the employer. It is a unilateral act on the part of the employee to cease the contract of employment with the employer. Under a Voluntary Retirement strategy, an employer will offer his employees some short-term and long-term benefits as an incentive to early retirement. The employee can take a decision within a certain time period.

The success of any downsizing through VRS depends on the merits of scheme and the methods of implementation. These have a great impact on the psyche of the workers. The implementation of the Voluntary Retirement Schemes incurs a heavy cost to the organization. In spite of this, it is often done across the board as a means of work force planning. The schemes offered by different organizations may vary significantly in details. Some schemes appear to be more successful than others. There have been many different types of schemes offered by different organizations.

In spite of initial reservations on the part of labour unions, VRS gained wider acceptance than other forms of downsizing. Quality, productivity and efficiency increased in most industries which implemented such schemes. When quality improves, mechanisms come to stay. Global practices and policies influence local business too. A major outcome appears to be emergence of this popular exit channel, viz., VRS. It turned out to be a valid, legal and pain-free 'way-out' to reduce the redundant work force. The number of personnel who have chosen to exit through VRS is considerable.

Over the last one-decade hundreds of private sector units-both the ones doing well and not doing well, have retrenched thousands of workers. Public sector units too have shed literally lakhs of workers. Both public and the private sector units together have spent thousands of crores of rupees as voluntary retirement compensation to the workers. In addition the nationalized banks have spent more than rupees ten thousand crores on the voluntary separation of 99,452 employees.

VRS in the Banking Sector

The public sector banks were clearly over-weighed. The wage bill constituted the second largest expense for the banks apart from the interest paid on borrowings. These banks had recruited many employees at the clerical level which involves routine jobs with no specialized skills. With the technology coming in and replacing these employees, the staff became redundant. Technology not only reduced the cost of operations but also spared the management from the problems and industrial actions such as strikes, posed by the employees.

According to the Verma Committee Report (1998), staff cost as the percentage of operating incomes was as high as 108 percent in Indian Bank, 76 percent in UCO Bank and 80 percent in United Bank as compared with the ratio of 47 percent in the public sector banks (PSB). The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) study used the benchmark of Rs. 125 lakhs Business per Employee (BPE) and pointed out that 22 percent of the bank employees in 16 public sector banks were redundant. State Bank of India (SBI) needed to reduce the staff strength by 57,978 to attain a Rs.125 lakhs BPE. Bank of Baroda, Corporation Bank, Dena Bank and Oriental Bank of Commerce had achieved the Rs.125 lakh BPE registering higher profit per employee. The establishment cost was also very high at 20.13 percent in nationalized banks compared with the 7.66 percent of the foreign banks and 3.04 percent of private banks. Though there was some improvement due to competition from the private and foreign banks, the ratios were not comparable to the international standards. The wage bills as a percentage of total assets declined during the period from 2.05 in 95-96 to 1.66 in 1999 - 2000. Banking being a service sector industry, productivity of the staff has a significant bearing on the banks overall performance. Profitability based indicator -the profit per employee of public sector banks witnessed a significant rise between the period 1996-97 and 1999-2000. It rose from about Rs.35000 per employee to about Rs.65000.

Foreign banks had a profit at around Rs. 700,000 per employee. Foreign banks operate on global standards with use of high-tech tools and applications like total use of computerized functioning replacing manual operations, with ATMs operating on a 24/7 (full-day and full-week) basis dispensing rush at cash counters, and credit cards or plastic money replacing endless counting and recounting of cash (currency notes) a practice that was widely prevalent in Indian Banks.

In 2000, the Government cleared a uniform Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) for the banking sector, giving public sector banks a seven-month time frame. The Indian Banks Association (IBA) was allowed to circulate the scheme among the public sector banks for adoption. The scheme remained open till March 31, 2001. It became operational after adoption by the Board of Directors of the respective banks. No concession was made to weak banks under the scheme. The scheme was envisaged to assist banks in their efforts to optimize use of human resource and achieve a balanced 'age and skills' profile in tune with their business strategies. As per the scheme all permanent employees with 15 years of service or 40 years of age were be eligible to avail of it with 'ex-gratia' amounting to 60 days' salary. Employees eligible for VRS, but who do not want to avail themselves of the scheme, had been provided with the option of choosing to go on a sabbatical for 5 years. While the right of refusal to give voluntary retirement had been granted to the bank management, recruitment against vacancies arising through the VRS route had been disallowed. Banks were asked to undertake a complete manpower planning exercise before offering the VRS scheme.

With a view to optimizing the utilization of human resources, 26 out of the 27 PSBs introduced voluntary retirement schemes in 2000-01. A very attractive package of terminal benefits and compensation favourably motivated employees in large numbers to voluntarily seek early retirement and leave bank service, thus realising the objective of the banks to shed part of the surplus manpower and become leaner.

According to Indian Banks Association, the total strength in Public Sector Banks at the end of March 2000 was 8,63,188, out of whom 1,28,714 or 14.7 percent applied for VRS. About 80% of the applications were accepted and the staff relieved under VRS until December 31, 2001 was 1, 01,300. This constituted 11.7% of the total strength. 27% of the total of 2, 38,116, officers opted for the scheme. As on March 31, 2002 implementation of the scheme involved a total cost of Rs. 12,300 crore for PSBs and resulted in nearly 12 per cent reduction in staff strength. (Developments in Commercial Banking, RBI Bulletin, 15 Nov. 2002). The major component of operating expenditure for Scheduled Commercial Banks (SCB), viz., wage bill witnessed a decline of 6.2 per cent in 2001-02. The decline was observed among the nationalised banks as well as the State Bank group. For PSBs, the reduction in wage costs was of the order of Rs.1,884 crore on account of the VRS scheme introduced in the previous year. This has had a salutary effect on improving the profit parameters of PSBs. (Developments in Commercial Banking, RBI Bulletin, 15 Nov. 2002).

VRS; An Evaluation

It was possible to effect a reduction in the workforce quickly and within a short time and without any friction. The example of VRS implementation in the banks became a model to be implemented by the Government in various other organisations and departments. It has been an achievement in itself.

The banks wanted to shed surplus clerical and subordinate strength. But there was overwhelming response from the officers in the higher ranks (Scale II and Scale III). But, there were no surpluses in this category, whereas Officers in Scale I, who perform routine supervisory jobs, were surplus. Eligible clerks were promoted as Scale I officers and eligible Scale I officers as Scale II cadre. There was too much stagnation in these junior cadres and promotions were rare during in the preceding decade.

There were geographical/regional mismatches. There were more desertions under VRS at specific centres. This difficulty could have been avoided, if VRS planning was done region-wise and centre-wise and implemented after identifying surplus manpower at each point. But the scheme would have become less attractive and would have lost some of the characteristics of the label "voluntary".

VRS: The Future Perspectives

More than a lakh of skilled and trained employees drew away from the banking system. They were accustomed to living under a monthly budget based on a recurring income. Could they switch to the use of a single seed capital and spread the benefits throughout their remaining tenure of life? On account of early retirement their post VR life would be much longer than the period of normal retired life of their counterparts superannuating in the usual course at their attainment of the age of 60. If they were to spend away or blindly invest the amount, yielding a poor return or quick depreciation their lots will be unenviable. Throughout their remaining life they would be blame themselves for having made an improper and hasty choice of accepting VRS.

Post VRS psychological, physical and sociological changes, real and perceived also need attention. Studies such as "Strategic Downsizing: a human resource perspective" by Appelbaum and Labib (1993) and 'The downside of downsizing' by Kets de Vries and Balazs (1997) have shown that the consequences of downsizing on the employees are far reaching. The problems faced by those who 'retire' are mostly social and financial. 'Losing a job' is a social stigma. It also affects the assured regular family income.  The family budget and plans to get the children educated and settled get upset. These indicate the need to plan any downsizing scheme very carefully not only by redesigning the work for those who remain and also by offering a bouquet of benefits to those who 'retire' that will make the transition to the post-retirement phase less traumatic.

When a person reaches his normal retirement age of 58 or 60, he is already mentally prepared for it. He would also have made financial arrangements for the period after retirement.  There is continuity between a person's pre-retirement and post-retirement life. Since VRS is announced rather unexpectedly in a given organization, there is tremendous confusion and feelings of betrayal and fear on the part of the employee. He is suddenly faced with the prospect of losing his job with all its accompanying socio-economic implications (Potts 2001).

The Indian employees were used to employment until a predetermined fixed age. Unlike their western counterparts, they do not think of retirement at the time they start working. Here, being employed by itself is a status symbol. In times of downsizing and VRS, the employee loses this. Because of advances in health care, there has been an increase in the health and productivity even beyond the mandatory ages of retirement of 58 or 60.


VRS was implemented in order to reduce the excess staff that dealt mostly with the routine work. Technological up gradation has enabled it so that the work can be done with less manpower. The advent of ATM's has rendered even many of branch offices redundant. Many studies have indicated that a large number of those who opted for VRS were in the officer cadre.

VRS was also intended to improve the performance of the 'weaker banks' (banks whose efficiency was low). It was however found that the numbers of personnel opting for VRS from low performing banks were less.

It is always desirable to carry out the Human Resource Planning before implementing the VR scheme. Studies have indicated that especially in banks where VRS was first introduced, little or no manpower planning seems to have been done. This has resulted in a massive exodus from certain branches of PSB's. There existed a situation where the entire staff of a branch has left through VRS. This meant new staff having to be deployed into a branch where no one would know how the business was carried out previously.

The guidelines issued by the Government of India stipulated that it was the banks management's prerogative to accept or reject a request for VRS. In reality this was not done in many banks. One of the ways the scheme could have been implemented would have been by exempting certain categories from VRS. Punjab National Bank exempted the IT professionals, forex dealers and other experts from VRS. The problem of specialists leaving the bank in large numbers was further compounded by the fact that others also opted out because of the fear of increased workload after VRS.

Impact of VRS

Preliminary studies have indicated that employees have opted for VRS for a number of reasons such as poor health, apprehension of the closure of the firm and increase in the job load after the implementation. There were apprehensions that government would reduce their stake in PSB's. The fear was that this would pave the way for future privatization of PSB's or their merger with private banks. Though the career development in banks was purported to be good, some of the persons opted for VRS due to the lack of it. Senior and experienced persons who were specialized in various fields found the lack of career development to be a major reason to opt out. Many in the officer cadre left the banks because of the oppressive environment and impersonal management prevailing there. The other reasons were fear of a reduction in retirement age to 58 and frequent transfers.

Early separated persons mostly have found VRS as an opportunity to set up their own units. The number of persons who are not productively utilizing their knowledge and experience is however quite high. Studies done on persons after VRS have shown that only about 30 percent of them are currently employed ( including self employment, farming, charity work). Considering the amount of time and money that would have been invested in training them, this is like pouring the money into a drain. Their skill and knowledge could have been more productively utilized for the economy a bit outside the organisation.

Setting up of dedicated Outplacement Exchanges for Early separated persons were mooted by IMDR as a result of their study on VRS optees in the Pune region. There is however no indication of any such placement having been set up.

Future Directions

Research in learning has revealed that learning capacity of humans does not decrease with age. This has to be viewed in the light that the age criterion in VRS is a minimum age of 40. The productive life of an individual can be assumed to be till 65. After these afflictions of old age may reveal itself. We are 'putting into pasture' an individual with skills 25 years ahead of time. Even if 25 percent of the VRS optees do not engage in productive activities, it places a huge economic burden on the working population to cater to the pensioners. Researches have revealed that persons who do not engage in meaningful activities have low levels of perceived quality of life.

Many of the Early Separated persons have indicated that the counselling provided to them was insufficient. Though many in the Banking Sector have invested their VRS amount wisely, it was found that the reducing interest rates in fixed deposits have made it difficult to maintain the same standard of living post VRS.

The Government as a part of the New Industrial Policy, 1991, announced the Concept of the National Renewal Fund. The Government established the National Renewal Fund (NRF) by a Government of India resolution on 3 February, 1992. It was intended to provide post retirement back up in the form of retraining and deployment. The NRF, was abolished in 2000, thus negating a move to set up a some kind of social protection. In order to expedite VRS, the NRF was given to the Department of Public Enterprises from year 2001-02. It has been seen that many VRS optees are unaware that they are entitled to an additional National Renewal Fund (NRF) of Rs 3,000 along with the VRS to learn a skill to help them earn later. This lack of knowledge is more in the case of unskilled/ semiskilled workers. It is desirable that some counselling be given to the persons taking VRS so that they are aware of such facilities available to them.


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