Nita Ambani (left) has joined her husband Mukesh Ambani (right) on the board of Reliance Industries (file photo: Reuters)
The March 31 deadline set by regulators for boosting gender diversity in boardrooms has passed, but more than 100 firms have not complied. As for those that have, many have reportedly installed the female relatives of company bosses with no professional experience.
The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) imposed a quota in 2014 of at least one female director on the board of every listed firm, and last month SEBI head U.K. Sinha warned of "very serious" consequences if companies did not comply. The regulator had extended the deadline by six months.
Yet despite a last-minute rush of appointments, corporate India has largely made a mockery of the order by recruiting wives, daughters and even stepmothers, analysts told Reuters on Wednesday.
"It's a mockery of the law. The compliance has substantially been done in letter and not in spirit," said Pranav Haldea, Managing Director of PRIME Database, a market research group.
"More than half the companies have appointed their relatives onto the board, who will speak in the same voice as their promoters and so the diversity being sought by SEBI has been defeated," he pointed out.
Reliance Industries has installed the wife of Chairman Mukesh Ambani, while the stepmother of tycoon Vijay Mallya now sits on the board of Mangalore Chemicals and Fertilizers.
Other companies which have appointed female relatives of key executives as directors include Raymond Ltd, Asian Paints, Godhra Phillips, Videocon Industries and JK Cement.
"I think it is a worry. This should not be about tokenism. The intent was really to get more women professionals into the boardrooms," said female industrialist Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairman and managing director of Biocon.
She told NDTV that SEBI should revise the order to make it clear that only independent women can be recruited onto boards.
Some of the companies that failed to comply are large state-owned corporates such as energy firms ONGC, GAIL and Bharat Petroleum Corporation.
They could face stiff punishment from SEBI, with penalties including suspension from trading, freezing of promoters' shareholdings or even a fine of up to Rs 25 crore ($4 million).
Firms argue that there is a scarcity of professionally qualified women to fill positions in the boardroom, but Haldea said that was simply not the case.
"That is really just a bogey. There are plenty of highly qualified women out there in sectors such as banking and finance, but they are not being allowed to join this old boys' club," he told Reuters.
"Only a thousand or so qualified women are needed. Is it really that hard to find these women in India?"
According to Bloomberg, the scarcity of women on boards is not unique to India - nearly one-fifth of the world's 200 largest companies have no female directors, it said, quoting an August 2014 report by Biz Divas, a national network of professional women.
An earlier study by McKinsey & Co. had found in 2007 that European companies with more women in senior management reported higher return on equity, better earnings and steeper stock-price gains.