updated 4/7/2006 10:51:00 AM ET 2006-04-07T14:51:00

Striking employees at India's largest commercial bank rejected a government appeal Friday to call off their walkout as tens of millions of people were left without access to cash.

Nearly all 210,000 employees of the state-owned State Bank of India went on an indefinite strike Monday demanding higher pensions. None of the bank's more than 9,000 branches have opened since.

Tens of millions of Indians use the State Bank, which serves 30 percent of the country's bank customers, and holds up to 19 percent of the country's total deposits.

Salaries of most Indian government employees are paid through the bank, causing a cash crunch for millions of households. More than 5 million salary checks are pending with the bank, officials said.

"I haven't been able to deposit my daughter's school fees. I hope the school realizes the problem," said Shakuntala Gupta, a government employee.

But worst-affected are poor depositors and pensioners.

"I have not been able to get my pension payment this month," said Bhairav Singh, a retired army officer.

On Friday, the bank employees' union rejected an appeal from the finance minister to return to work. Employees are demanding pensions equal to 50 percent of their final salaries, compared with the current flat ceiling of 4,250 rupees ($95) a month.

"Our only demand is to increase the ceiling on the pension. But the government has not come up with any assurance. The strike will continue," said V.K. Gupta, the vice president of the employees' union.

A.K. Purwar, the bank's chairman, urged his employees to come back to work.

"Please come back," he said in an interview on the NDTV news television channel. "The losses are huge. They run into billions of rupees (dollars) every day."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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