By Aftab Ahmed and Devjyot Ghoshal
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The government is in talks with foreign lenders to provide as much as $14.5 billion in credit to millions of its small firms, two officials said, in a sign the country's banking system may not be robust enough to do the job on its own.
The government is in discussions with multiple foreign lenders, including Germany's state-owned development bank KfW Group, the World Bank and some Canadian institutions to extend lines of credit to small enterprises, one of the officials, who did not want to be identified, told Reuters.
KfW's India office confirmed the discussions, though the main focus was on credit lines to support small businesses' solar power generation. The talks were at an early stage, KfW said.
A spokesman for World Bank in India on Saturday said the discussions with the government were in the early stages, adding that "further rounds of consultations will help us define the contours of this collaboration".
The official said the government plans to source up to 1 trillion Indian rupees of loans from foreign institutions because Indian banks were not in a position to provide enough capital for the small business sector, which is seen as critical to job creation.
“We are exploring, we are having discussions with various funding agencies if something can be done (for small and medium firms),” the second official said.
The officials did not provide full details of the discussions they are having with banks, or identify all those they are talking to, but said talks are at a very early stage.
India's micro, small and medium enterprise (MSME) ministry is discussing the proposal to pull in foreign banks with the country's ministry of finance, which will make a final call, the second official said.
The push for foreign loans comes on the heels of the Indian government's announcement earlier this month that it plans to borrow about 700 billion rupees by issuing overseas sovereign bonds.
India's 63 million firms in the micro, small and medium firm sector are responsible for more than a quarter of the country's manufacturing and services output, and must be re-energised for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government to kick-start the economy.
Gross domestic product growth fell to a five-year low of 5.8% in the January-March quarter, well below the 8%-plus rates that the government is targeting.
But credit availability for small and medium firms, which also account for about 45% of India's total exports, has worsened due to a liquidity crisis in the country's shadow banking industry that has seen big lenders struggling to remain solvent.
State-owned banks, which dominate the sector, have not been able to drive increased lending because they are burdened with more than $145 billion in bad loans.
This has led to a severe credit squeeze for smaller firms. They pay up to 17% annual interest on loans from banks, while the shadow banks, which are also known as non-banking financial companies (NBFCS) can charge as much as 20%.
Last month, a study by a Reserve Bank of India panel said the overall deficit in credit for the MSME sector is estimated at about 20 trillion rupees to 25 trillion rupees.
But lending to such firms can be risky as some lack proper financial information, such as historical cash flow data, which makes it challenging for banks to assess the credit risks.
To mitigate such risks for foreign banks, the loans would be given sovereign guarantees and be routed through Indian government agencies such as the Small Industries Development Bank of India, the first official said.
($1 = 68.8490 Indian rupees)
(Additional reporting by Hans Seidenstuecker in Frankfurt; Editing by Martin Howell, Kim Coghill and Clare Fallon)