A Dutch-campaign group, PAX, released a report last week, naming the government-owned State Bank of India (SBI) in the “Hall of Shame” for financing a US-based bomb manufacturer, Orbital ATK Inc. Several other leading banks were named in the list of should-be-shamed lenders, including Barclays, Bank of America and Credit Suisse.
Orbital ATK Inc is a defence and space technology manufacturer, known to make cluster munitions, and is on the ‘Exclusion List’ of several banks, prohibiting any kind of lending to the company. The PAX report dug out information about SBI’s $87 million funding to the Virginia-based company since June 2012, which the bank nonchalantly defended as a “syndicated credit deal(s) to finance projects across the globe.”
SBI always works in accordance with local laws and regulations and would like to confirm that there is no prohibition whatsoever, either in (the) US or in India, to finance such commercial projects.Official SBI statement to Reuters
There’s just one issue with this statement: it is against the Convention on Cluster Munitions 2008 – an international, legally-binding set of rules banning such weaponry.
What Are Cluster Munitions?
A cluster munition – or a cluster bomb – detonates into multiple submunitions (ranging from 10 to a couple of hundred) upon firing. These sub-bombs then leak out a molten metal that pierces metal armour, breaking up into up to 2000 fragments, which then fall and destroy virtually everything and everyone in the impact area.
It doesn’t end there.
While some detonate upon firing, hundreds remain live on the ground, detonating when they come in contact with unsuspecting civilians, months or even a year, later. It essentially becomes a minefield.
Recently, in April 2016, Amnesty International visited Yemen, where – sponsored by the US and UK – Saudi Arabia continues to wage a violent war, in addition to a border blockage that is basically starving the country. They found a UK-made cluster bomb that killed two children and injured 16 people in a strike against civilians.
I found the bomb and I went and gave it to my brother so he can have one and I had one. He hit them against each other and they exploded and I found myself lying on the ground.Nine-year-old boy in Hajjah to Amnesty International
His brother was killed on the spot; he lives to tell this frightful tale.
The horror is nowhere close to over for people in Hajjah in Northern Yemen; thousands of sub-bombs lie unexploded throughout the area.
The Convention on Cluster Munitions, 2008
Cluster munitions are banned by a treaty formed and signed at the 2008 Oslo Process. It came into force in 2010, and of as April 2016, had been signed by 119 countries. It bans the production, use, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions.
India has not signed this treaty, along with the US, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia, among 70 other countries. In fact, India did not then, and has not until now, accepted an invitation to attend a meeting of the Convention. India has to at least be there at the table, to begin a conversation and reach a middle ground, if not a conclusion.
India also shares the international community’s concerns about the humanitarian impact of the irresponsible use of cluster munitions. We believe that the use of cluster munitions is legitimate if it is in accordance with international humanitarian law.Official Statement by Indian delegate in the UN General Assembly in 2011
2011 was the last time India made a statement on the issue of the ban on cluster munitions or on the calamitous weapon itself.
After the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, India signed a $375 million dollar contract with the US to receive more than 500 cluster bombs, with full logistical support, fast-tracked please. While the paranoia and memory of then-fresh blood is completely understandable, buying more – and bigger – bombs cannot possibly be the only solution.
Cluster bombs simply do not possess the exactitude of tactical strikes; they are by definition indiscriminate and detonate over a wide area. While the target may be singular – a compound, a locality, a village a town (depending on how much oil you have) – the smaller bombs will fall over some “collateral”.
By knowing this as the defining feature of the weapon in question, and yet stubbornly refusing to even participate in a dialogue about, India’s stance on potentially causing mass suffering in times of crisis is: A-OK.
Why State Bank of India Cannot Be Excused
Ethical banking has become a rising concern among taxpayers in recent years; they need to know where their money is being invested. Banks simply can’t pretend to not know their borrower’s profile. Neither can they deny what a billion dollars in loans can translate to for a Syrian town.
Several banks around the world have Exclusion Lists based on moral, ethical and humanitarian grounds. However, ethical banking in India (especially The Big Four) has mostly only manifested in the form of CSR and charity. This, then, remains something Indian banking has to move towards, and it only makes sense if India’s largest lender takes the first step forward.
If the concern is about SBI being a government bank, and decisions being influenced by India’s suspiciously booming bilateral ties with the US, then let Arundhati Bhattacharya, Chaiperson of SBI, set the record straight.
Somehow there is a feeling that every single decision of public sector banks is prompted by the government. That is not the case. Even today it is not so. We are definitely not getting any calls from the PMO or from anybody in the government. We are quite free to take our own decisions. SBI in any case never had too much of an interference.
Now, either this is yet another mesh of political deceit in India or SBI’s banking has been irresponsible and driven only by measures of financial ballooning. Either way, it’s bad news.