Elephants, it’s often said, can’t dance. But some of India’s public sector undertakings have managed to waltz through the most radical economic, political and market transformations in the seven decades since Independence. Huge, powerful, but passably nimble, some of these have managed to hold their ground even as their quick-footed private peers gained muscle.

SBI: The speeding juggernaut

State Bank of India, the country’s largest bank, today represents the culmination of over two centuries of traditions, ethos and market dynamics. It had catered to statesmen, social reformers and doyens of industry, such as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Motilal Nehru, JRD Tata and Dr Rajendra Prasad. Today, it reaches out to masses in rural hinterlands, apart from industries and urban customers.

SBI has grown into a strong and integrated commercial banking institution, playing a vital role in economic development. After the liberalisation of the banking sector from 1991, while SBI and other nationalised banks continued to retain the lion’s share of the market, they did lose some ground between 2006 and 2008. But subsequent efforts around technology, product diversification and branding paid off and SBI started to regain its lost mojo from 2008. But the bad-loan saga that began plaguing the sector from 2014-15 has weighed on SBI, too. Yet, the lender is among the best placed within the PSU bank space to weather it. In April 2017, with the merger of its five associate banks, SBI leaped into the league of top global banks.

SBI now boasts a balance-sheet size of over ₹41-lakh crore, more than 22,000 branches and 58,500 ATMs. It commands a share of about a fourth of the country’s deposit and loan market.

However, near-term challenges to earnings persist. SBI reported a muted 5.6 per cent growth in its loan book to ₹24-lakh crore for FY20. A significant pick-up in credit growth, paring bad loans and continued investments towards digital are imperative for it to sustain its earnings.

ONGC: Energetic push

For an energy-hungry India, which imports about 85 per cent of its oil and half of its gas needs, the importance of ONGC – the country’s primary hydrocarbon explorer and producer – cannot be overstated. The PSU Maharatna, set up by a very young India in 1955, continues to hold a commanding position in the energy space, accounting for about 75 per cent of the domestic oil and gas production.

Apart from domestic oilfields such as Cambay, Mumbai High and KG-Basin, where it has struck big over the decades, ONGC has also helped India’s energy security through ONGC Videsh’s foreign operations. Over the years, ONGC has become an integrated hydrocarbon major through major stakes in refiners MRPL and HPCL, and petchem makers OMPL and OPaL.

Among ONGC’s key challenges is stagnating output from its ageing fields. To address this, it unveiled plans last year to invest ₹86,000 crore in 27 major projects. As part of its Energy Strategy 2040, it plans to double oil & gas output, triple revenue distributed across various businesses, quadruple profit with 10 per cent contribution from non-oil & gas, and achieve market capitalisation 5-6 times current levels. ONGC is among India’s largest companies, with a market cap of about ₹1-lakh crore. In a difficult FY20, its consolidated revenue and profit were ₹4.33-lakh crore and ₹11,600 crore, respectively.

NTPC & PowerGrid: Powers that be

NTPC and PowerGrid, India’s largest power utilities, are products of a bygone era, when governments took a lead role in the power sector. NTPC was set up four decades ago to speed up the development of power projects. PowerGrid was set up to develop a national power grid. The two entities’ businesses are aligned with the national priority of providing power to all.

NTPC has the nation’s largest installed power generation capacity, of 62.9 GW, with around 1.1 GW worth of solar and wind. Its thermal power capacity is also India’s largest, at over 50 GW. PowerGrid has 164,115 circuit km of transmission lines across the country.

NTPC is the only company still implementing new thermal projects. Further, it has committed to increase its renewable generation capacity to 30 per cent by 2032.

In the last two decades, the Centre has tried to stoke competition by allowing private players to enter the generation and transmission businesses.

There are very few inter-State transmission projects where PowerGrid is being nominated directly: it needs to compete for new projects. The company has moved into consulting roles on turnkey projects, and is taking up intra-State transmission projects as well.

Both NTPC and PowerGrid are profitable. For FY20, NTPC reported a consolidated net profit of ₹10,112 crore on revenues of ₹97,700 crore, while PowerGrid’s numbers stood at ₹10,811 crore and ₹36,185 crore, respectively