The regularity of frauds at Indian banks has shaken the faith of the public in the banking system. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has attracted a lot of flak for the Punjab National Bank (PNB) fraud for the fact that it happened right under its nose and the fraudsters got away. Suggestions have poured in from well-meaning opinion makers and couch Pundits – from replacing the RBI Board to privatizing the banks.
In this context, in what may be a rare occurrence, two governors of the RBI – one former and one current – hit the media spotlight and spoke about the issue.
Dr. Raghuram Rajan in an interview with a business news channel spoke more like a politician – all generalities and little or no specifics. He pointed fingers at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), conveniently forgetting that he was the governor when the fraud was being perpetrated.
On the other hand, Dr. Urjit Patel, the present governor, spoke of the need to privatize the public sector banks and appeared to deflect blame from the Central Bank. Many saw this as a response to Finance Minister Jaitley’s pointing fingers at the RBI for the scam.
RBI governors, in a time tested tradition, are known to be reticent and tend to shy away from media spotlight. But that may be in a bygone era and not in the new normal we all live in.
While there may be some truth in what Dr. Patel had said, the fact that he chose to speak at all on the topic and the timing were indeed bizarre. It is unclear why he chose to bring this up in public. Nor did Dr. Rajan cover himself in glory. The RBI and the Ministry of Finance, per an unwritten etiquette, never drop even the faintest hint of discord amongst them. This is because it has the potential to create turbulence downstream in the economy and could unsettle markets.
The RBI is a venerated institution that is deeply entrenched in the economy. In it’s over eight decades of existence it has requited itself extremely well. It has been at the forefront of expansion of bank branches and credit delivery. It had also played a pivotal role in the nationalization of banks in 1969 as well as in nurturing several developmental financial institutions.
To its credit, the central bank has embraced advances in technology to build a modern banking and supervisory infrastructure. It has adopted risk based supervisory model, a contemporary best practice in bank supervision worldwide. The key pillars of this model are a combination of onsite and offsite monitoring and greater reliance on backend data analytics to proactively gain insights into problem areas in the system. These early warning insights would enable the regulators to monitor banks better.
So, at least on paper, systems and processes were in place for effective supervision. Yet, the repeated occurrence of high profile frauds despite these innovations, only reinforce the common perception that the RBI and bank auditors have not lived up to the expectations of the country.
The real culprit here, of course, is the fact that India’s institutions and enforcement agencies, despite constitutional and legal guarantees, have long been rendered toothless paper tigers by vested interests. That was done deliberately so that scams like the ones at PNB could be committed with ease.
But the deliberate defanging of the watchdogs or the ownership of public sector banks by government raised by Dr. Patel, are secondary issues that need to be addressed separately. They should not obfuscate the principal responsibility of the RBI in securing the banking system. Given the stature and dignity of the institution and office, it does them no good to pass the buck.
Having said that, the truth however, is that the RBI carries an overload of functions and responsibilities that range from traditional central banking to other “developmental functions”. This was probably necessary in the early days after independence when the modern banking system was in its infancy. But today the situation is different.
Digital banking has rapidly taken root in every corner of the country today, thanks to technology and mobile phones. At the same time, it has also set the bar higher for customer expectations in convenient and secure delivery of banking services. This, in turn, has only accentuated the enormity of challenges in managing and regulating the burgeoning industry.
The fraud at PNB has exposed the vulnerability of the banks system in the new digital ecosystem. There are powerful lesson to be learnt here. Institutions that do not adapt and change with the speed of time risk becoming irrelevant. Hence the need of the hour is a structural transformation of the Central Bank to meet the enhanced challenges in the new digital banking order.
It is certainly an opportune time to review and offload some of the regulator’s functions. One recommendation would be to carve out the Board for Financial Supervision (BFS) into a separate organization. The BFS was constituted 1994 as a committee of the Central Board of Directors of the RBI “..to undertake consolidated supervision of the financial sector comprising commercial banks, financial institutions and non-banking finance companies …”. It enjoys enormous powers under the Banking Regulation Act, 1949. In the light of repeated frauds, the BFS must be reincarnated as a more agile and results driven body.
An expert committee could help with the finer details and setting up of this new entity. Suffice it to mention here that this new institution must rise well above the turf battles between the RBI and the Ministry of Finance. It must be on par with other institutions like the Election Commission of Indian (ECI) and the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) to prevent the institution from being bludgeoned into submission by vested interests.
But given the current preoccupations of the government, the much needed administrative reforms for governance may not happen in the current term of office. Many Pundits and analysts believe that the Modi government may have already prepared a blueprint for comprehensive reforms that will radically change the civil, police and judicial services in India. Redefining the role and function of the RBI must find the pride of place in the administrative reforms that is long overdue.
Creating this new entity will show the government’s determination in delivering safe and secure banking services to all Indians.