Can someone ask India’s central banker some tough questions please?

Keeping it easy.
Keeping it easy.
Image: Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar
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Earlier this week, Indian journalists cried foul over a government notification, ostensibly designed to counter the proliferation of fake news, saying it threatened press freedom. Vociferous protests forced the government to backtrack.

But just two days later, on April 05, veteran journalists attending a Reserve Bank of India (RBI) press conference, post the monetary policy review, gagged themselves. Seven reporters, who got the chance, failed to ask RBI governor Urjit Patel a single direct question on the biggest controversies that have rocked the country’s shaky banking system in recent times.

In the past few weeks, a string of bank frauds and allegedly unethical transactions have hit the headlines. Together with its massive toxic-loan problem, the banking system has been at its weakest in a long time.

It began with the $2 billion lost by Punjab National Bank (PNB) allegedly to jewellers Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi.

More recently, Chanda Kochhar, CEO of ICICI Bank, was accused of nepotism. India’s second-largest private bank allegedly doled out loans to a firm owned by Videocon group’s Venugopal Dhoot in exchange for benefits to a firm owned by Kochhar’s husband. The borrower has defaulted, but the bank’s board of directors has thrown its full weight behind the CEO.

The case is now being probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

Besides the banks themselves, if there is one entity liable to answer for lapses in their governance, it is RBI, the regulator. And one might have expected the press to raise the issues during the half hour or more it got to interact with the RBI officials on April 05.

But there wasn’t more than one veiled, half-hearted reference to the ICICI Bank fiasco, which the governor dodged skilfully. “Recently, in one of the public forums, you spoke about absence of regulatory powers on PSU banks, how to control them, and how to bring order there. Of late, there have been instances of, reports about lapses at private sector banks as well. So, I would like to know if there are any developments from the regulator’s point of view on these institutions?” one of the senior editors attending the conference asked.

And there was just no mention of the PNB fraud.

The press’s conspicuous reluctance to do its job has evidently left a bad aftertaste.

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