State Bank of India, the country's largest lender, is about to embark on radical changes. It may offer employee share options, recruit specialists and promote good performers faster. These moves would be a first in a major state-run institution in a bloated, debt-laden sector.
India's state banks are under pressure to improve profitability and slash bad loans, creating a more agile sector to help fuel economic growth. For the government and the banks, that has put the focus firmly on one issue: people.
"The primary problem we have to solve in the banking sector is of performance and talent," minister of state for finance Jayant Sinha said recently, noting the search for talent is more important even than banks raising capital to meet tougher international regulatory rules.
SBI enjoys greater autonomy than some of its smaller rivals, but even straight-talking chairman Arundhati Bhattacharya is wrestling with basic problems ranging from poor pay to the fallout of a 1990s hiring freeze that left state banks with a dearth of senior managers. The central bank has dubbed 2010-20 the "retirement decade".
Like her counterparts, Bhattacharya is grappling with an inflexible recruitment system where mid-career hires of outsiders are unheard of. India's state banks hire largely through a nationwide exam system, bringing in entry-level staff who rise through the ranks over years.
Bhattacharya, whose bank employs more than 215,000 people, is also working with the government to circumvent a 2013 court ruling banning state-run banks from campus recruitment at India's elite universities, using contracts to pull in much needed specialists, and even consultants for specific expertise.
"Areas like credit, risk, human resources, IT of course, economic research, analytics: wherever we have specialised areas, we can get people laterally on a contract basis," she told Reuters in an interview.
This is a departure for banks that long offered only the option of a job for life, offsetting low cash pay with a web of benefits like housing and a generous pension.
"We've flagged to the government that at least a portion of our recruitment we should be able to do from campuses. The government has assured us they are working on this," Bhattacharya said.
This should come as a relief to many in the sector who saw the ban - supposed to enhance democratic hiring - as emblematic of banks' struggles to meet private sector productivity targets while shackled by state constraints.
"They want efficiency, but they are tying our hands," fretted one senior official at a large public sector bank.
Nearly two dozen state-run lenders dominate India's banking sector with more than 70 percent share of loan assets, but they account for only a third of profits. Bad loan ratios are on average more than double those at private sector counterparts, after years of profligate lending, weak due diligence and government pressure to fund often risky infrastructure projects.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has promised greater autonomy for individual banks like SBI, and is also due to allow state-run banks to specialise. Recruitment could test its political will - not least radical moves like the share option scheme being debated by SBI's board.
"It has not yet fully gone through. But we are working on it," Bhattacharya said. "Definitely in the next 12 months you'll see a lot of changes. That much I am quite sure."
Modi's government in February for the first time allowed private sector applicants for the chief executive officer role at five big state banks. Pay, the government said, would be "flexible" - a major break for a country that runs state salaries on a schedule.
Requirements around the age limit and the years of board experience could limit public sector candidates who would normally be first pick for a role. But cash could limit the quality of private sector candidates.
S.S. Mundra, who headed India's number-two lender Bank of Baroda (BOB.NS) before becoming a deputy governor at the Reserve Bank of India, earned about $40,000 in 2013-14, a twentieth of ICICI Bank (ICBK.NS) CEO Chanda Kochhar's pay. Jiang Jianqing, chairman of state-controlled Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (601398.SS) (1398.HK), took home around $326,000 in salary, bonus and benefits.
"Compensation levels are on different planets," said a top executive at one large private sector lender.
For younger applicants, security may still sell it - at least for now.
"I want a secure job, an officer's job," said Ganesh Khatua, a university graduate preparing to sit for the bank test.
"I know public sector banks cannot offer the same salary as the private sector for experienced people. The ideal situation would be to switch over (in time)."