PSBs had 'worst phase' under Manmohan Singh, Rajan: FM Nirmala Sitharaman

Nirmala Sitharaman
India’s public sector banks (PSBs) had the “worst phase” under the “combination” of former prime minister Manmohan Singh and Reserve Bank of India (RBI) ex-governor Raghuram Rajan, and that giving the ailing banks a “lifeline” was her primary duty now, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said.

PSBs have been grappling with bad loans, and the government has been taking measures to address the issue. In August, the government announced an upfront capital infusion to the tune of Rs 70,000 crore into PSBs. Besides, 10 state-owned banks are being consolidated into four.

Delivering a lecture at the prestigious Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs on Tuesday, Sitharaman said: “While economists can take a view of what prevails today or prevailed years ago, I will also want answers for the time when Rajan was in the governor’s post, speaking about Indian banks, for which today to give a lifeline is the primary duty of the finance minister of India. And the lifeline-kind of an emergency has not come overnight.”

“I do respect Raghuram Rajan as a great scholar who chose to be in the central bank in India at a time when the Indian economy was all buoyant,” she added.

Asked about Rajan’s comments during a recent lecture at Brown University in which he had apparently mentioned that in its first term, the Narendra Modi government had not done better on the economy because the government was extremely centralised and the leadership did not appear to have a consistent articulated vision on how to achieve economic growth, the minister instead said there were major issues with bank loans during Rajan’s tenure as central bank head.

It was in Rajan’s time as governor of the RBI “that loans were given just based on phone calls from crony leaders and PSBs in India till today are depending on the government’s equity infusion to get out of that mire”, she said.

“Dr Singh was the prime minister and I’m sure Dr Rajan will agree that Dr Singh would have had a ‘consistent articulated vision’ for India,” she said amid laughter from the audience.

“With due respect, I’m not making fun of anybody but I certainly want to put this forward for a comment which has come like this. I have no reason to doubt that Rajan feels for every word of what he is saying. And I’m here today, giving him his due respect, but also placing the fact before you that Indian public sector banks did not have a worst phase than when the combination of Singh and Rajan, as Prime Minister and the governor of the Reserve Bank, had. At that time, none of us knew about it,” she said. 

Sitharaman said while she was grateful that Rajan did an asset quality review, people should know what made the banks ailing today.

According to the RBI’s provisional data in June on global operations, gross non-performing assets (NPAs) of PSBs have declined by Rs 89,189 crore from the peak of Rs 8.95 trillion in March 2018 to Rs 8.06 trillion in March 2019.

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