Who Do We Blame for the Nirav Modi Scam?


Who Do We Blame for the Nirav Modi Scam?

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza/Arré

There is something about Gujaratis, foreign countries, businessmen in general, and Modis in particular, that spells fraud money. Even as the noise around Nirav Modi and his arrest rises, we know that deep down, the practise of fraudsters flying out of the country has now become a comfortable pattern. 

I’ve spent two decades in the financial services industry as an audit clerk.  I’ve seen first-hand how seriously audit finding is taken up during initial discussions on draft audit reports by banks and financial institutions. (Hint: About as seriously as Bollywood takes outsiders from the industry). These recurring scams that surface from the Indian financial system have proved that any objections arising at the initial stages evaporate, as they climb the corporate pyramid over rounds of negotiations. You can blame the Mumbai heat.

Looking back, I wonder how all of this happened. You don’t have to spend 20 years in a bank to know that you shouldn’t lend someone a million dollars without conducting a thorough check of whether they can pay you back or have the resources to do so.

What the good folks at Punjab National Bank essentially did was issue a demand draft without receiving funds for the same from a certain Nirav Modi, who then scanned a copy of the draft to show to a string of other banks for immediate finance. It’s not that simple of course since Letters Of Undertaking and the SWIFT system were involved but drilled down; this is the simplicity of the scam and the size of the holes in our nationalised banks.

For those who live in the world of net banking, I guess it’s amazing to know how physical stationery at a bank branch can play a role in a fraud of this magnitude, but it can. And this in a country whose corporate culture requires you to take five approvals before HR issues  a new stapler.  

The thing is this: You can take the banks out of India and show them how the world runs, but you can’t take the Indian out of Indian foreign banks. When foreign branches of Indian banks did not bother to confirm the authenticity of such Letters of Undertaking either online or offline before offering credit line to the counterparty, you can see the inherently Indian nature of a globalised entity.

Vijay Mallya ran away with our money in 2016. Nirav Modi did it in 2018. I’m willing to put my money on the fact that before 2020, the third big bird will take flight.

You can also see the shady legacy of huge unreconciled inter-branch as well as inter-bank balances. Such is the magnitude of these probable write-offs among other issues, I guess, that former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan chose to get back to teaching rather than allowing his unchanged cabin carpet to stink. We Indians are poor at reconciling in general, whether it be family differences or these huge inter-bank balances, drilling a bigger hole in the economy with every passing year that we don’t plug it.

One could argue that there are income leakage audits, concurrent audits, and statutory audits. But here, the problem is a little different. There are thousands of small audit firms out there who commit to a time-bound audit programme because they know that for a thousand-plus branched bank’s statutory audit, the report findings of a single branch are insignificant. A complacency creeps in. The papers are filed with a “marne de yaar, report dede” attitude, a mere extension of India’s much-famed “chalta hai” attitude.

Bigger firms know that they can be absolved of responsibility by relying on the report of these small branch auditors under the current auditing standards. One may be shocked to know that a bank branch audit finishes within eight man days and an elapsed time of 15 days of its commencement at the fag end of a financial year. We spend more time discussing Taimur Ali Khan’s favourite toys.

There is practically no freedom to extend any of the audit processes when in doubt, beyond the set deadline. Why? Because the board meeting for approval of financials is set in stone. The Chairman has a foreign tour and all his underlings dare not suggest that he inconvenience himself and change it. Or perhaps, the audit firm has no clout to demand for an extension. Or some other equally insane typically sarkari reason that would leave you stumped when you think about the thousands of crores at stake.

If bureaucracy is too lazy to care and too stupid to realise the damage their negligence can cause, it becomes the responsibility of the audit firms to bring them to task. Every Indian audit firm needs a crash course on “you do what you need to do” at the University of Chicago from Rajan. When it comes to the case of Nirav Modi vs the Indian banking system, I would like to put the firms who conducted the branch and statutory audit in the defendant’s box as Accused No 1.

The bank itself is, of course, Accused No 2. Okay PNB, you managed your statutory audit, but for filing returns to a regulatory body as strict as the RBI, did you not bother to do a reconciliation? Or did you at least try to fudge the unreconciled? Even evil requires a certain level of genius. It’s your banking license at stake, for God’s sake! To mitigate the business risk, did the top management/audit committee not look into such a crucial area as a part of the concurrent/internal audit? In short, they seem to have chosen to say, “Do hell with concept of materiality.”

What you have now is a spineless audit firm and a negligent bank. But you also have a careless regulatory body. Did the RBI not notice anything unusual for more than seven years with the number of returns being filed by the banks each year? From what is floating on the surface, we don’t need CID’s Dr Salunkhe to tell us that it’s a case of murder. It was brutal murder of the very order of law.

It is clear that it’s a series of transactions with active and/or passive cooperation (read criminal negligence) of stakeholders to compliance that we have all counted on until now to keep our money safe and the industry functioning. We have been taught to dread deadlines and the loss of every possession but reputation. We have the sanskar to be in awe of surnames, relationships to business houses, political contacts, and bureaucratic connections.

Vijay Mallya ran away with our money in 2016. Nirav Modi did it in 2018. I’m willing to put my money on the fact that before 2020, the third big bird will take flight. And once again we will all wonder how this can possibly come to pass again.

We will poorer by a few thousand crores but worry not, our “chalta hai” attitude will get us through.