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Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Punishing the witness

In bank frauds, as in much else, wrongdoers go free, the root cause remains

Written by Michael Pinto |
Updated: June 1, 2018 5:51:51 am
bank fraud, rbi, letter of credit, letter of undertaking, bank loan default, nirav modi, vijay mallya, indian express Vijay Mallya (left) and Nirav Modi.

How many of us, I wonder, remember Damania Airlines and the sensation it caused nearly 25 years ago by serving liquor on domestic flights? Private investment had just been allowed in the aviation sector and several brash young entrepreneurs were giving Indian Airlines a feel of what it meant to have competition. Other than smart crew and spanking new aircraft, their real USP was serving liquor on board domestic flights. And the travelling public voted convincingly with their feet by flocking to such carriers.

Obviously, it could not last. One fine day, news came of a passenger who, perhaps accustomed only to the monastic ambience of Indian Airlines, where even cold water wasn’t always available, dipped his beak too deep into the waters of Bacchus and misbehaved on the flight. The denouement was swift and decisive: With one fell swoop, serving of liquor was banned on all domestic flights.

The odd thing was that no one ever came to know the name of this person or what he did for a living. There was not even a whisper of what happened to him after the incident. Was he whisked away in a Black Maria and left to sleep it off in the local jail? Was any case filed against him? Did he suffer in any way for his misdemeanour? These were the days when TV news was in its infancy and the nation didn’t always want to know, but even still the media that carried the story for days never asked these questions. The only issue for the Press and public at large was the call for stricter bans on drinking during travel. So, the misuse of a facility open to the public brought no punishment or shame to the offender. All that happened was that ordinary people who drank responsibly were penalised.

If you are wondering why I bring up an incident that happened nearly 25 years ago, the reason is that the patterns of behaviour show no signs of change. Unscrupulous borrowers exploited venal bank staff to siphon off large sums of public money by misusing legitimate channels of credit. Our response is not to punish the guilty but to choke those channels. The RBI has now banned letters of undertaking (LOUs) and letters of comfort (LOCs), leaving genuine exporters, who have done no wrong, in the lurch.

The harm such ham-handed measures cause is immense. Instruments that could be discounted in the overseas market at just a few basis points above Libor have been abolished. So, exporters will have to tap alternate sources at higher rates. This is bound to affect several sectors but especially the export of gems and jewellery that is an important chunk of the total export basket. Employment of some five million workers could be at stake. And, as in the past, nothing has happened to the villains of the piece. Some employees of the Punjab National Bank have been arrested but the real beneficiaries of the scam are at large.

This brings us to the really important question which is the need to treat the sinner and not the occasion of sin. Consider what happens at Harvard. Because of the insecurity engendered by muggers who lie in wait for the unwary, students who study in libraries till late at night can be at risk if they walk back home alone. So they are allowed to call for an escort service from the police and ask to be driven to their dorm or residence. The police know very well that the facility can be, and is, misused by students who do not like the idea of walking home on a cold windy night and would prefer a free taxi service. Indeed, the police come down heavily on those found guilty of such abuse of the facility. But never once have they considered closing it down. It is accepted that the service is truly needed and the fact that it is exploited by some calls for punishing those people but not for abolishing the service as a whole.

Perhaps it’s time for us to re-think our priorities. The typical response to a bad accident caused by careless driving is usually installing speed breakers and lowering of the speed limit. So we inconvenience people who have done no wrong when we should really ensure better driving through a more judicious licensing system. As always, the system punishes, not those who have flouted the rules but innocent by-standers. It’s the sinner who needs reform, not those who are on the straight and narrow path.

The writer is a former secretary (shipping), Government of India

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