India’s First Female Bank CEO Aims High


Chanda Kochhar, the first woman to run a bank in India, is no stranger to tough situations.

She became chief executive officer and managing director of Mumbai-based ICICI Bank Ltd., India’s largest private-sector lender, as the global financial crisis raged in 2009. Soon she was battling a run on retail deposits, fuelled by unfounded reports the bank had significant exposure to troubled U.S. banks.

With the quiet confidence that is her trademark, Ms. Kochhar ordered branches across India to stay open as long as customers wanted their money, made sure ATMs were constantly restocked and coached edgy branch managers late into the night.

The key, she explained, was doing everything possible to make customers and employees feel comfortable in the face of a crisis, and communicate clearly.

With similar resolve, she has pushed ICICI, a bank hitched to India’s burgeoning middle class, into risky new markets – from the smallest of Indian villages to Canada’s rugged oil sands. Under Ms. Kochhar’s leadership, ICICI has followed India’s far-flung diaspora of immigrants and businesses into 18 other countries, while nearly doubling the bank’s return on equity.

And with clever use of technology, such as full-service branches in mobile vans and transactions via Facebook, she has brought millions of India’s “unbanked” into the modern economy.

ICICI, which stands for Industrial Credit and Investment Corp. of India, is now the country’s largest private bank, as well as its leading, private life and general insurer. It has more than 3,750 branches and 11,300 ATMs in India. Ms. Kochhar’s goal is to grow ICICI into a top 20 global bank.

The bank was a “gender neutral” institution long before it gained favour in the banking industry, in India and elsewhere. It has evolved into an organization that doesn’t give any special privileges to women, but also doesn’t distinguish between the sexes, Ms. Kochhar said. She’s now one of at least three female bank CEOs in India who rose through the ranks at ICICI, along with Axis Bank’s Shikha Sharma and JPMorgan India’s Kalpana Morparia.

In contrast, none of Canada’s Big Six banks has ever had a female CEO; nor have most of the top banks in the United States. With worldwide assets of $124.5-billion (U.S.), it is significantly smaller than National Bank of Canada, the smallest of Canada’s Big Six banks (assets: $199-billion Canadian) and Toronto-Dominion Bank, the largest (assets: $922-billion).

Ms. Kochhar regularly ranks on Forbes magazine’s annual list of most powerful women (No. 42 in 2014) and is widely recognized as India’s leading female CEO. She has earned every leading business prize in India as well as the Padma Bhushan, one of the country’s top civilian honours.

Expanding ICICI’s presence in Canada is a natural, given the extensive familial ties and growing economic relationship between the two countries, she said. She pointed out that roughly 30,000 Indian immigrants come to Canada every year, along with tens of thousands of students.


Modi Rolls Out More Reforms to Boost Economy


Prime Minister Narendra Modi has unleashed a slew of reforms in the past weeks, scrapping fuel subsidies, simplifying labour rules and pledging to open coal mining to private players in a bid to boost the economy.

When Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party won a thumping majority for its pro-growth promises in India’s elections in May, hopes swelled that the new government would adopt economic reforms that had proved beyond the brittle coalitions of the past.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has launched long-awaited labour reforms, emphasizing that ease of business is essential to the success of 'Make in India,' his government's plan to turn India into a manufacturing hub. The measures simplify employment rules and smooth the way for people to move social security funds when they change jobs. They also provide for an improved pension and minimum salary grade.

“According to The World Bank, India has one of the world's most rigid labour markets, but fears of a trade union backlash and partisan politics have deterred previous governments from reform measures,” said Bundeep Singh Rangar, Chairman of London-based consulting firm IndusView. “Business leaders have high hopes that Modi, an advocate of smaller government and private enterprise, will change that.”

Economists have long argued the country's potential will only be unleashed when it curbs subsidies, relaxes suffocating regulation and rigid labour laws and eases complex rules governing industrial land acquisition.

The Make in India campaign, which was launched by Modi on Sept. 25, seeks to emulate China and other East Asian powerhouses by focusing on export-oriented manufacturing.

India's industrial production growth slowed down further to 0.4% in August 2014 after growing by just 0.5% in September 2014.

“The sluggish growth in industrial production has undermined hopes of a sharp rebound in manufacturing. The festive season did not bring much of a cheer to the consumer durables sector owing to the adverse impact of uneven rainfall on crop production and rural incomes,” said Rangar.

In a bow to free markets, the Government released diesel pricing from state control, ending a battle for eliminating subsidies on the largest component of fuel consumption. It also cleared a delayed increase in domestic gas prices; hiking by one-third the amount the government pays natural gas producers to encourage exploration in the fuel-hungry nation.

Economists say they expect more progress on resolving labour issues and bringing in a national goods-and-services tax that will end the patchwork of levies making doing business in India costlier.

Many supporters expected bigger things from Modi by now: perhaps a lifting of all fuel and fertilizer subsidies, or the privatization of state-owned Coal India. Modi’s more modest reforms, however, may be a smarter way for India to move forward.


Congratulations Satyarthi!


Kailash Satyarthi who? That was the question in India after the Norwegian Nobel Committee yesterday awarded the 2014 Peace Prize to the little-known child-rights activist from the South Asian country.

Hours after the announcement, followers on his Twitter Inc. account surged to more than 22,000 from 89 on Oct. 6 as the scramble to know more about him crashed his web page and that of his New Delhi-based Bachpan Bachao Andolan, or Save Childhood Movement. He will share the $1.1 million prize with Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai, 17, the global face of a campaign against terrorism, illiteracy and poverty.

The 60-year-old Satyarthi has helped rescue more than 80,000 children from bondage, trafficking and exploitative labor in the past three decades. After giving up a career as an electrical engineer in 1980, he also spearheaded a movement to make free and compulsory education a constitutional right for children in India in 2009.

“People working hard at the grassroot level are hardly known by name or face,” said Vinod Shetty, a lawyer who runs an education project for children in Mumbai’s Dharavi, Asia’s second-biggest slum. “It’s a thankless job, and the award is a pat on the back for him and his family.”

India, home to the world’s highest percentage of malnourished children after East Timor, officially had 4.35 million child workers in 2011, according to the latest data from Ministry of Labor. Satyarthi wrote in an article in the Mint newspaper in the same year that the number might be as high as 60 million.

Child Labor

Uttar Pradesh, India’s most-populous state accounted for 15 percent of the officially tracked child labor in the country, according to a 2012 report by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. The majority of children employed in the country work in the tobacco industry, followed by construction work and spinning and weaving, the report said.

In 2011, crimes against children in India rose 24 percent from the previous year with a total of 33,098 cases reported in 2011 versus 26,694 in 2010.

“The prize is a recognition to hundreds of millions of children who are still languishing in slavery, who are still deprived of their childhood, health, education and their fundamental right to life,” Satyarthi said as scores of reporters and photographers jostled in the overcrowded lobby of his office in New Delhi yesterday. “I recall all those children who are still languishing at some mine, stone quarries, brick kilns and in homes. They remain invisible and unknown.”

Civil Society

Satyarthi’s organization rescues child workers and provides them with free education, according to the Bachpan Bachao Andolan.

Indian President Pranab Mukherjee said the prize should be seen as a “recognition of the contributions of India’s vibrant civil society in addressing complex social problems,” according to a statement.

“It’s a prerequisite for peaceful global development that the rights of children and young people be respected,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee said in a statement yesterday. “In conflict-ridden areas in particular, the violation of children leads to the continuation of violence from generation to generation.”

Satyarthi said he had been moved at the start of his education as a boy to witness the son of a cobbler who wasn’t able to go to school because he had to work.

Passing Sweets

“I was unable to digest the fact that some people were born to work, while fortunate ones like me were able to go to school and pursue our dreams,” Satyarthi said yesterday, wearing a brown kurta, a flowing shirt worn over pajamas. “It is a myth poverty causes child labor and poverty, but it is a proven fact that child labor causes poverty, child labor perpetuates poverty and child labor perpetuates illiteracy.”

Satyarthi’s office in a middle-class neighborhood of the Indian capital was thronged yesterday with well wishers, supporters and journalists. Some of the 100-odd staff were busy passing around sweets while others tried to bring order as the place, which was packed to capacity.

“Satyarthi is a brilliant choice by the Nobel jury,” said Anand Mahindra, the chairman of Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd., India’s biggest SUV and tractor maker, who founded a charity that educates underpriviledged girls in India. “His work underscores that India, and indeed the world, will squander its future if it doesn’t free children from the burden of labor and preserve their right to education.”

‘Gandhi’s Spirit’

Thorbjoern Jagland, the head of the committee, said at the announcement that Satyarthi has, in Mahatma Gandhi’s spirit, mobilized public opinion, in India and in other countries.

“It’s not a compensation for the fact that Mahatma Gandhi never got the prize,” Jagland said. “I don’t know why he didn’t get the prize. But we should then appreciate that one who is taking up his tradition gets the prize.”

The Nobel Peace prize, along with literature, physics, medicine and chemistry honors, was created by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel and first awarded in 1901. Winners include the European Union, as well as U.S. President Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa, who until today was the only other Indian to win the prize.

“This award will guarantee recognition and draw attention to the dangers of child labor and the need to use education as a form of intervention for vulnerable children,” Shetty said.