6 NOVEMBER 2018
Wilful on defaulters?
The RBI should share the details sought by the Central Information Commission
The Reserve Bank of India finds itself in the midst of another tangle. The Central Information Commission (CIC) has directed RBI Governor Urjit Patel to show cause “why maximum penalty should not be imposed on him for” the central bank’s ostensible “defiance” of Supreme Court orders on disclosing the names of wilful defaulters on bank loans worth hundreds of crores of rupees. In his order dated November 2, Information Commissioner M. Sridhar Acharyulu has come down heavily on the RBI and its chief for failing to uphold the interest of the public at large and not fulfilling its statutory duty to the depositors, the economy and the banking sector, by privileging individual banks’ interests over its obligation to ensure transparency. At the heart of the matter is the issue of burgeoning bad loans at the country’s commercial banks, which by the RBI’s own admission had, at the gross level, surged to 11.6% of all advances as on March 31, 2018, from September 2017’s 10.2% level. While the central bank has repeatedly acknowledged the gravity of the problem it faces, including in ensuring more accountability from the more numerous public sector banks over which it wants greater control, it has consistently invoked both the risk to the country’s “economic interest” and its “fiduciary” relationship with lenders to avoid sharing information on the largest defaulters with RTI applicants.
Citing the apex court’s 2015 order, where the judges had directed the central bank to comply with the provisions of the RTI Act after observing that the “RBI has no legal duty to maximise the benefit of any public sector or private sector bank, and thus there is no relationship of ‘trust’ between them”, Mr. Acharyulu rhetorically asked how the rule of law could be secured if a regulator like the RBI would not “honour” a constitutional institution’s directions. The CIC order is also unsparing of the government for not being more forthcoming. Mr. Acharyulu has justifiably asked the Finance Ministry why it should not explain to the people the action taken, or contemplated, to recover dues from wilful defaulters, who owe banks more than Rs. 50 crore, and, where warranted, the criminal proceedings initiated. While it is no one’s argument that all large unpaid loans are by-products of mala fide borrowing, the onus is on the RBI and the government to make as clean a breast of it as is legally possible, in order to retain public trust. Given that the RBI has initiated steps to set up a digital Public Credit Registry that would include details of all borrowers including wilful defaulters, it would behove the banking regulator to meet the CIC’s November 16 deadline for furnishing the information sought about those owing Rs. 1,000 crore or more, to start with.
The forgotten million
As the sacrifice of Indian soldiers in World War I is recognised, the lessons too matter
One hundred years after the end of World War I, the immense sacrifice and contributions of well over a million soldiers of undivided India are being incrementally recognised and memorialised the world over. In France, the centenary celebrations of Armistice Day on November 11 will include the unveiling of the second overseas national war memorial for Indian soldiers, by Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu. The first such memorial abroad, formalised in 2002, is the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, which is a recognition that more than 130,000 Indian soldiers fought in WWI in Belgium, at least 10,000 of whom lost their lives on the battlefield. Last month, British Prime Minister Theresa May pledged to wear a khadi poppy in honour of more than 74,000 soldiers from pre-Partition India who fought on the side of the allies and died in battle. She particularly noted that 11 of them won the Victoria Cross for their outstanding bravery and played a crucial role in the war across continents. Yet far from the ceremonial pomp of officialdom is perhaps the most poignant symbol of how much ordinary Indian men enlisting in the colonial government’s Army gave of their lives to fight the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires: the British Library in London has received 1,000 pages of war-veteran interview transcripts recorded in the 1970s, which include details of the inhumane treatment, including floggings, denial of home leave, and brazenly racial-discriminatory treatment that 1.5 million mostly-illiterate men from northern India faced regularly within the allied forces army.
In the early days of the War, troops of the Indian Army, backed by the political bourgeoisie, were enthusiastic in responding to the British government’s call for military support from India. This was because, although the swadeshi movement was underway, the freedom movement was in a fledgling stage. Even Mahatma Gandhi was open to Indians enlisting and learning to defend themselves using arms, as were leaders such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak. However, with the enormous death toll by the end of WWI, the painful lessons were absorbed and the pressure for enlistment of Indians in the World War II effort produced an entirely different outcome — the Quit India movement and the escalation of the freedom movement. WWI also influenced the collective psyche of the government of independent India, starting with the tenets of non-alignment that came to embody a core mantra of the country’s foreign policy ethos. However, while India remains wary of ‘treaty alliances’ and steers clear of combat involvement in third-party conflicts, it is the third-largest contributor of military and police personnel to UN peacekeeping missions. Difficult though the conditions Indian peacekeepers face must be, they must be thankful that their country would never put them in the sort of situation that their predecessors faced from 1914 to 1918.