MUMBAI/NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - When a US$2 billion (S$2.6 billion) fraud at state-run Punjab National Bank (PNB) rocked India two months ago, Mr Chetan Hemani and other small business owners could have been forgiven for thinking "what's that got to do with me?"
Confident of his good credit record and long relationship with his bank, Mr Hemani, who is a pharmaceutical machinery manufacturer and exporter, had thought getting approval for a 25 per cent overdraft above his 10 million rupee (S$197,775) credit limit would be little more than a formality.
But when Canara Bank, another state-run lender, turned down his request in March, Mr Hemani said he gleaned from conversations with bank officers that he was a collateral casualty in the fallout from India's biggest banking scandal.
"It is suffocating," Mr Hemani said. "When influential people defraud a big bank like PNB and run away, there is nothing they can do. All they do is to squeeze retail borrowers."
The banks' increased rigour risks throttling one of the most vibrant parts of India's economy - the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) sector that has been growing at 10 per cent annually for several years, according to government figures.
It is also a segment that contributes almost 38 per cent of India's gross domestic product, employs some 100 million people, and accounts for 45 per cent of India's manufacturing output and 40 per cent of its exports.
Two years ago, these vulnerable businesses were stung by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decision, with no forewarning, to take large denomination bank bills out of circulation overnight in a bid to flush out tax evaders. They were hit again last year (2017) by the chaotic implementation of a nationwide goods and services tax (GST), aimed at replacing various taxes and duties levied by different states.
Canara Bank said it had not changed policy as a result of the PNB fraud.
"We were quite careful in sectional advances, quite cautious earlier also (in extending loans)...as such no effect" on loans extended to small businesses, said chief executive officer Rakesh Sharma.
But data for the sector as a whole does suggest there has been a tightening of credit.
PNB disclosed in mid-February that it had been the victim of a massive fraud.
For the February to March period, lending to small businesses has fallen by 0.2 per cent, though overall lending in the economy grew 5.9 per cent. Lending to small businesses in the same period a year ago grew 5.8 per cent.
At least three managers at branches focused on lending to small businesses all said that they have become more stringent in disbursing loans after the PNB scandal.
"Everybody is cautious. We are following the exact rule book so that there's no deviation," said a branch manager of a state-owned bank who did not wish to be named.
"After the PNB scam, vigilance levels are very high and bankers are scared. I had overlooked some rules earlier just to help a business in distress. I cannot do it now," he said.
Bankers, however, also cited other reasons why small businesses were being hit.
In February, the Reserve Bank of India tightened rules in a bid to identify and deal with stressed loans quickly.
Bankers said this meant reporting and classifying loans as low as 50 million rupee as potential defaults within 30 days of a missed payment, largely impacting small businesses.
Bankers also cited the discontinuation of buyers' credit, or letters of undertaking (LoUs), for importers after the PNB fraud. The form of trade finance, once widely used by small businesses, was allegedly misused to perpetrate the PNB fraud, prompting a regulatory crackdown.
The PNB fraud has had a direct impact on trade finance, said Rupa Rege Nisture, group chief economist of L&T Finance, adding this hurts small businesses involved in labour intensive industries.
The LoU ban has forced many small businesses to seek short-term credit instead, according to another manager of a state-run bank's small business branch, noting these need more approvals and come with higher interest rates.
Several other small business owners told Reuters they too had struggled to get credit, with banks more wary of taking loan decisions based on past relationships with customers since the PNB fraud.
Ms Inder Preet Anand, who owns a workshop and employs six people assembling strobe lights at a Mumbai industrial estate, told Reuters she was rejected by her bank for an overdraft of 13,000 rupees in February.
"I cannot give loans on relationships, we need to be strict or else after a few years I might be arrested," a branch manager said on condition of anonymity.
He said there was "a lot of pressure" from regional head offices to follow rules to the letter.
After the US$2 billion fraud at the country's second biggest state lender, several bank officials were arrested by India's federal police. A first set of formal charges against 22 people, including a dozen bankers, was filed in the case on Monday (May 14).
All this had led to fear among bank employees, say several bankers.
"Bankers fear taking commercial decisions that may later on be scrutinised through a law enforcement lens," said the head of one state-run bank, who also asked not to be named.
He also noted that, unlike sizeable syndicated loans to major companies that are approved by a committee of bankers, loans to the MSME segment often only need approval from a branch manager, putting much more scrutiny on an individual if things sour.