Banking on women

In a budget speech that looks more mundane than otherwise, the proposal of setting up an All Women’s Bank was one of the high points among the declarations. It invariably drew applause from all stakeholders and parties involved – from the political opponents to women’s rights groups to NGOs. The area of women’s issues is one of the most case sensitive ones in India – the other one being minority issues. However, it may turn out to be all empty promises and no substance! There is, without doubt, bipartisan benefit here with the government scoring brownie points on women electorates and women at large.

The All Women Bank will start off with six unspecified branches across the country. It should well be set up in the rural and backward hinterland rather than in the metropolises. The former’s need for the project far exceeds the latter! There are far more illiterate women in the rural belt than in their urban counterpart. According to the 2011 Census, the rural female literacy stands at 58.75 per cent compared to urban female literacy rate of 79.92 per cent. On top of it, generically rural women are less independent than urban women along with lower employment rate. Therefore, the government should shed its stereotype metro-first attitude towards anything that catches media hype and set up the units in the areas where status of women are at its lowest ebb. If it does, the project can head towards certain degree of success relating to empowerment of rural women. It will also create new employment for women and new avenues for their self-sufficiency. With all these potential merits lined up, it is sure to attract accolades from different quarters, and it did! The director of SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association), spokesperson of Akshara, a renowned NGO related to women’s cause and even the founder of Mann Desi Mahila Sahakari Bank, the first rural bank for women established in Maharashtra in 1997 sounded optimistically towards the decision.

However, one wonders how much difference realistically can the women’s bank make to the condition of women? Could the government have diverted the funds towards more pressing problems that women are facing – like maternal care, child development, malnutrition – which are more direct problems for women and must be tackled discreetly? The accrued benefits that the government is talking about, like extending loans only to women and access to credits, could have been extended through unisex banks as well. In case of increasing the loan amount to women only, the government could have created a quota for women or could have spent money on campaigns encouraging women to access the banking services and so on. This would have had a stalling effect on the opportunity cost incurred from excluding the male customers that these women’s banks will reject. Further, the poor and illiterate women that these banks should be targeting will invariably face red tape and bureaucratic entanglement that can have an offsetting effect on its efficacy. The illiterate or semi-educated women might face enormous hassles to comply with the complex and often painstaking formalities that go with accessing public sector banking enterprises.

As if Mr. Chidambaram doesn’t know it! But still his decision probably is the carrot to win over the very important women electorate segment, which can prove to be crucial in the forthcoming election. A gimmick that can even raise concerns regarding the government pathway of gender apartheid!