A fall from grace

DECCAN CHRONICLE. | ANJANA DAS AND FALAK NAAZ SYED
Published Aug 20, 2018, 12:00 am IST
Updated Aug 20, 2018, 12:14 am IST
Usha Ananthasubramanian, Chanda Kochhar and Shikha Sharma were powerful faces in India’s financial sector.
Chanda Kochhar, Shikha Sharma and Usha Ananthasubramanian
 Chanda Kochhar, Shikha Sharma and Usha Ananthasubramanian

These women have been celebrated as trailblazers. Their climb to the top positions of India’s biggest banks have inspired countless young women. But today, Allahabad Bank’s Usha Ananthasubramanian, ICICI’s Chanda Kochhar and Axis Bank’s Shikha Sharma are in the eye of the storm, with their names being dragged through a mud bath of scams, corruption and profitability allegations. As they stand on the brink of losing credibility, it’s time for introspection. Why have these women fallen from great heights?

According to a former woman banking chief, the system doesn’t generalise between man and woman. It is robust and institutionalised. It only rewards leaders and follows the due process of law, if there are any allegations to be investigated.  

 

As the country was preparing to celebrate its 72nd Independence Day, the Centre gave the CBI permission to act against Allahabad Bank MD Usha Ananthasubramanian in the Rs 14,000 crore fraud at Punjab National Bank. The government dismissed Usha, former managing director and CEO of PNB and MD of Allahabad Bank, on the day of her superannuation on August 14.

Usha was divested of all her powers as MD of Allahabad Bank after being named in a CBI chargesheet in the multi-crore PNB fraud case but had continued to be an employee of the bank. She was at the helm of PNB in two stints. She headed the bank between August, 2015 and May, 2017, before moving to Allahabad Bank. She was Executive Director at PNB from July, 2011 to November, 2013.

 

“Usha and some other senior bank officials were in the know of the fraud, ignored the circulars and kept ‘misleading’ the RBI about the true state of affairs involving PNB Dubai and the Indian Overseas Bank, Chandigarh. Yet, they did not take any corrective action and remained silent spectators. This facilitated continuance of the fraud resulting in a wrongful loss to PNB,” the CBI said in the charge sheet.

A career banker, Usha also headed Bharatiya Mahila Bank that was merged with SBI in April, 2017. In January this year, she became the first woman chairman of the Indian Banks’ Association.

 

In the latest NSE co-location scam, SEBI has questioned former NSE Managing Director Chitra Ramakrishna alsoIn the latest NSE co-location scam, SEBI has questioned former NSE Managing Director Chitra Ramakrishna also

J.N. Gupta, former executive director at SEBI, feels one should never generalise corruption on the basis of gender. “Each individual has his/her own character. Whenever something goes wrong, the true character of the person is revealed. In Usha’s case, there are no allegations of personal corruption by the CBI and it’s a procedural issue. No one has said that she has benefited personally or she helped any individual to benefit. The PNB fraud is being investigated and we do not know what will be the final outcome.”

 

Adding to the list, in the latest NSE co-location scam, SEBI has questioned former NSE Managing Director Chitra Ramakrishna also.

The curtains were finally drawn on former ICICI bank chief Chanda Kochhar. She, in June, voluntarily decided to go on leave to facilitate an independent probe into the allegations of quid pro quo in her dealings with the Videocon group, the bank had said. Chanda, the daughter of the principal of an engineering college, had joined ICICI Bank in 1984 as a management trainee.

The CBI has already registered a preliminary inquiry into the allegations that Chanda’s husband Deepak Kochhar’s company NuPower Renewables received an investment from a Videocon group company as a quid pro quo for a loan from the bank. The CBI is inquiring into the conflict-of-interest allegations against ICICI Bank on its loans to the Videocon Group, ICICI Bank said in the filing to US SEC.

 

“In Chanda’s case, she has not been proven guilty. The inquiry commission is yet to come out with its report. There is a slight difference between the two cases. Chanda has been accused of helping a company, while Usha is accused of being lacking in her responsibility as head of the institution. In both the cases, the jury is not out yet. So we should be cautious about putting the ‘corrupt person’ tag on them. It’s unfair,” added Gupta.

A clinical psychologist at a leading college in Mumbai agrees and says, “The whole work scenario is changing. More women are coming to the workplace and in top positions too, so it’s natural to see a rising number of such frauds committed by them. It has nothing to do with gender.”

 

In the case of Shikha Sharma, what irked the RBI is her incapability on the work front to check the NPAs and the poor asset quality of the bank. Earlier in April, RBI asked the Axis Bank Board to reconsider the fourth three-year term it gave CEO Shikha last year. 

Born to an army officer, Shikha began her career with ICICI Bank in 1980 and spent a 29-year tenure with the ICICI group. Shikha born to an army officer, began her career with ICICI Bank in 1980 and spent a 29-year tenure with the ICICI group. Shikha took over the reins of Axis Bank in 2009. She has been credited with building its investment banking and retail businesses. But over the last few years, its toxic loans have increased considerably.

 

Under her tenure, the gross NPAs of the bank rose from 0.96 per cent in March, 2009 to 5.28 per cent in December, 2017. The bank’s increased exposure to sectors such as infrastructure, power, and mining have mostly turned to NPAs. In the aftermath of the note ban in November, 2016, Axis Bank once again found itself in a controversy. At least 19 of its employees were suspended for flouting norms and for alleged money laundering.

Then there was a credibility crisis also. Axis Bank has been noticed twice by the Central bank for under-reporting bad loans for financial years 2016 and 2017. The divergence was around Rs 9,480 crore. In 2017, the lender once again reported a loan divergence of Rs 5,633 crore. Then came the WhatsApp information leaks when in December, SEBI ordered Axis Bank to probe insider trading allegations against bank officials following reports that the lender’s earnings were already being shared on WhatsApp before it was sent to the exchanges.

 

Shriram Subramaniam, managing director, InGovern (a proxy advisory firm), says, “It’s a wrong notion that women have more integrity than men. Integrity and credibility have nothing to do with gender. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This saying does not have any gender implication.” 

“Only history and investigating agencies can judge them,” says a finance ministry official.  

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