Hardbound

An Inside Story Of The Bankers’ Bank

Reserve Bank of India is not perfect. It has room for improvement. Alpana Killawala, who handled RBI’s communication for over 26 years, uncovers insider facts about the central bank and its governors, from S. Venkitaramanan to Raghuram Rajan, drawn from her extensive experience as the communication officer 

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Published 23 days ago on Jul 01, 2024 5 minutes Read
A Fly on the RBI WALL: An Insider’s View of the Central Bank | Author Alpana Killawala | Published By Rupa Publications | Pages 248 | Price Rs 595

Just by being in the communication department for my entire tenure in the RBI, I was synonymous with communication there. If the external world knew the RBI, it would first be through the governor, and then through me. The media would often say this to make fun of me. I called it an occupational hazard. However, by being in the same function for over 26 years, I was also a kind of memory bank on the communication function. Just as someone else would be in some other department. I see nothing wrong in it. Either you are an expert by education or you learn the job through experience.

Unfortunately, the moment one achieved expertise through experience, one would get transferred to a different department or a regional office. While transfer was an accepted principle, it was often executed with vengeance even at the RBI. There were many cases in which the RBI executed transfers only so that the incumbent did not develop expertise and did not enjoy the benefits deriving out of that, like connections with other central bankers or getting called for giving talks on the subject. 

This became even more pronounced when RBI officers started getting opportunities to go abroad for learning or sharing their knowledge in the central banking community. A typical RBI officer would thus be a jack of all trades but master of none. I once called ourselves ‘mediocre’ in a top-management meeting and there was pin-drop silence for a moment. And then business moved ahead as if nothing had happened.

I remember a time when I had gone to meet a senior RBI official as a journalist. This officer was an expert in his area of work, which was credit. At that time, banks had to refer loan applications beyond a certain amount to the RBI for approval—Credit Authorization Scheme or CAS, as it was known. The officer oversaw that desk. He was simply brilliant and explained the concept of CAS in all its nitty-gritty to me. I was impressed and remember asking him what he was doing in the RBI. His reply to me was that the RBI officers were ‘unemployable’ elsewhere. I told him that he was grossly mistaken. He only had to step out of his comfort zone to see his market value. The officer later became an executive director in the RBI. Once liberalization set in, many mid-career officers quit the RBI to join the private sector and drew fat salaries. Those who retired also got lucrative offers. I remember a senior officer of the RBI who was also an engineer, who I met after his retirement. He told me that he was making much more money than he did when he was employed with the RBI.

I was recruited to the RBI as a specialist in communication. In fact, I was told when I had joined that the unions had allowed my entry into the RBI only on the condition that I would not be allowed to grow beyond Grade F—the grade of the head of the department. This was because I had joined young—well, young only by the RBI’s standard of those times. I was just 32 and had joined as a deputy general manager—the start of the senior management cadre; whereas career RBIites would reach that position only in their 50s. With age on my side, theoretically, I could later claim my stake even for the deputy governorship. 

But age is not the only quality required to occupy senior positions in the RBI. The organization is pyramidical. The top is narrow over a large base. Traditionally, in my time, two out of four deputy governors were chosen from within the RBI—one deputy governor from the research cadre and one from the general side. There were seven executive directors at that time. So, that was the highest post an RBI employee could aspire to be at, since the deputy governor and the governor were government employees. Note that, when an RBI employee is selected as the deputy governor, they resign from the RBI and accept government employment. 

As executive director and deputy governor, one handles more than one function. The unions reportedly feared that if I was allowed to compete with the regular RBI employee, I might just get the deputy governorship, age being on my side, thus taking away one post from them. Perhaps, they did not realize that handling communication all throughout my career would not qualify me to be even the executive director, let alone deputy governor. It was their perceived fear that got added to my service condition. And I was not promoted beyond Grade F. My personal loss apart, the RBI should analyse the advantages and disadvantages of its transfer policy and reframe it with a view to developing expertise. 

Generalist vs Specialist

Another dimension of the averseness towards developing expertise is having two streams of employees—economists and generalists. From their expertise to their designations and their career paths—everything is separate for these two streams in the RBI. Like I have elaborated [in an earlier chapter] cross-breeding would only bring enrichment to both sides.


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