Opinion: After Nirav Modi frauds PNB, are we to pay for our theft ourselves?

Written By: Amit Basole
Bangalore, Karnataka, India Published: Feb 23, 2018, 08:38 AM(IST)

Representative image. Photograph:( ANI )

The latest banking scam, this time in the Punjab National Bank to the tune of INR 11,000 crores, is yet another reminder of just how well the Indian economy is being managed in the interests of the super-wealthy. Over the years, and particularly during the boom years of the 2000s, when employment growth was negligible and “jobless growth” became a commonly used phrase, India’s corporate elite, including some of its best-known business houses, went on a borrowing spree. They borrowed from private and public sector banks, they borrowed domestically and abroad. It is now clear that many of these loans were never intended to be repaid. The public sector banks, in particular, issued thousands of crores worth of loans without due diligence or even with active collaboration in the fraud. 

Starting in the early years of this decade, the Reserve Bank of India itself was under pressure to do something about the building problem and started forcing public sector banks to reveal how many such loans were on their books. This is when the true extent of the problem, long-festering, started becoming apparent. 

As per the recent estimates, there are around INR 10 lakh crores worth of bad loans in the Indian banking system. This number will likely rise. To gain a sense of proportion this is around 7% of India’s GDP. The entire union budget for this year was INR 24.42 lakh crores and the fiscal deficit was around 6.2 lakh crores. This year’s MGNREGA budget is INR 55,000 crores.

The amount of money borrowed by India’s wealthy citizens in connivance with its officials with no intention of ever repaying it is larger than the amount that the union government spends on health, education, food and fuel subsidies, agriculture, rural and urban development, combined. 

But this is not the end of the bad news for the country’s ordinary citizens who still struggle for small amounts of credit to run their businesses and households. First, it is not known how much of this massive borrowing became a useful investment in the economy and how much was converted into unproductive foreign and domestic assets, as well as luxury consumption.

If the Nirav Modi case is any indication, then we may expect more the latter than the former. Second, not only have we paid once in the form of the opportunity cost of these loans, i.e. the alternative uses to which we could have put this credit, we are paying for it a second time in the form of the budget outlays on what is called bank recapitalisation. This is where the government uses its tax revenue to replace bad assets (loans that will never be repaid) with good ones. This allocation for the current budget was INR 2.11 lakh crores, larger than the allocation for many crucial development programs.

National outrage has understandably followed the latest revelations. But sadly, as expected, this has given the proponents of bank privatisation another excuse to push their agenda. Since the vast majority of bad loans in the banking system are on the books of the public sector banks, the solution seems simple. Privatise them. Make them subject to market discipline and such corruption and negligence will not occur. But this argument appealing to the power of the market to discipline finance can only be convincing to those who have been asleep through the 2008 financial crisis. The cronyism, corruption, conflicts of interest, and open fraud that were the hallmark of this crisis are very well-documented. That very few high profile convictions resulted is a testament to the power of the finance lobby in the United States and elsewhere than to the lack of evidence. 

What makes us think that the equally, if not more, compromised Indian institutional climate will respond any better under a largely private banking sector than a public one? Privatisation of banks does not alter the fact that 1% of the richest Indians control nearly 60% of its wealth. Further, a private banking system is not the same as a competitive one. The US has the former, but no one would mistake it for the latter.

The PSU banks have to be reformed is clear. But “reform” is not a synonym for “privatise.” What we urgently need is public, accountable, and functional finance.

The country’s permanently credit-starved micro, small and medium sector, including agriculture, can truly transform this economy if supported well. Their individual credit requirements are not high, but they are large in numbers. Such a situation is ideal for a distributed public banking system. The current high-handedness and lack of accountability in public banking is not an excuse to privatise it. It is an excuse to make it accountable locally. Something we have never attempted seriously. Banking performs the crucial function of linking savers with borrowers, those with capital to those who can use it. Further, having the power to create money by making loans, banks are endowed with one of the most powerful tools of development. There is no argument for making this incredible power beholden to elite interests. There is every argument for making it as decentralised and distributed as possible.

But what about the bad loans? Here too the choice is clear; whether to pursue those who stole the money and to retrieve it, or to pay for our theft ourselves. The answer should be obvious.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)

Amit Basole

Amit Basole is associate professor of Economics, School of Liberal Studies, Azim Premji University, Bangalore
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