At the FE Best Banks Awards in Mumbai on Thursday, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said that the government would go all out to ensure that loans owed to banks are repaid by wilful defaulters. That message is bound to reassure lenders, especially those in state-owned banks weighed down by a pile of Non Performing Assets (NPAs) or bad loans and who have been trying to recover money from many promoters — some of whom like Vijay Mallya have fled the country. The finance minister didn’t name anyone but did say that the government would take legal action against wilful defaulters evading Indian authorities. The scale of the challenge the government is faced with is reflected in the fact that over 8,000 wilful defaulters — defined as those who have the capacity to repay but choose not to — owed state-run banks Rs 76,685 crore at the end of July 2016. Unfortunately, there has not been much to show in terms of bringing them to book.
At the root of this problem is the delay in the judicial process and the ability of banks in India to enforce their rights. Both the current RBI Governor, Raghuram Rajan, and one of his predecessors — Y.V. Reddy — are clear that the bad loans mess is also a reflection of the failure to ensure that lenders in India are in a position to enforce their rights in a time-bound manner. Government and the regulator have recognised this going by the move to carry out reforms in this area, such as a new bankruptcy law, speeding up of the functioning of debt recovery tribunals, introduction of the Joint Lenders Forum for better co-ordination among banks, pushing promoters to sell part of their stressed assets to repay banks and putting in place of a large loan database which includes loans of over Rs 5 crore and their status which is shared with all banks. That has gone hand in hand with the effort by the prime minister’s office to push for the prosecution of some of those involved in large frauds.
Jaitley said that wilful defaulters should not think that the system would ignore them if they “physically swim across the shores “and avoid paying debt”. But to deter them, it is important for the government, regulator, banks and the country’s investigative agencies to act jointly and send out a strong message that wilful defaulters can no longer game the system. While pursuing loan defaulters, it is equally important to improve governance at state-owned banks. The cost of failure in resolving the bad loan mess is ultimately borne by the taxpayer.