The Budget announcement on a new public sector bank for Women has evoked mixed reactions and there are clearly two camps on the issue. No doubt millions of women (and those who are not women) are underbanked or even unbanked in India. The large proportion of the underbanked has become a hurdle in the implementation of both fiscal and monetary policy that it is a shame that the intervention was designed to make it a gender issue. Banking is a path to financial empowerment and flexibility for all, not just women. To make it about women is against the twin principles of inclusion and equality that should be the bedrock of sustainable democracies.
It seems in recent times, the more women are attacked, the more they are constrained in ever smaller boxes. The more they are attacked, the less inclusive the reparations seem to get, and lead to more segregation. The Women’s Bank is another such box.
Of course there is a need to support women towards greater economic independence, more so because ours is patriarchal society where women have few property rights. The case for banking as a means to empower women has been established and proven. It has also been proven that both rural and urban women are as competent as men in managing their banking given the right kind of initial support. At the same time, it is true that there are various barriers to women. Many have reported that in practice they cannot get a bank loan unless a husband or father stands guarantor, others have reported that they find banks daunting as they do not know what to do when they go to a bank. With little or no literacy, current banking processes in regular high volume branches seem to be impossible to navigate, a veritable chakravyuh to the uninitiated.
One can accept the need for more women’s branches, more schemes and more funding. But this does not build the case for a whole new bank. There do exist women’s branches and even a few women’s co-operative banking and non banking finance companies. The existing network of public sector bank branches can be leveraged. There is certainly a case for more programs and schemes that include women in banking via deposits and loans. Let the branches, especially rural ones have guidelines or even annual targets on women’s banking operations with their branches. There is even a case to run financial literacy campaigns, have account opening camps or melas and of course financial literacy support. Increasing the number of female banking correspondents and providing training and support to and via them is the obvious first step. Even a simple thing as a mahila sahayak – a female helpdesk at every branch would help to make banks more inclusive and open for women.
The need for support is at the retail level. Banking is one of the few sectors where women actually have risen to the top due to a few visionary organisations and star individuals who created fantastic policies that helped retention at the middle management levels when attrition usually happens. The requirement is at the bottom of the pyramid, where traditionally self regulated, self governed and self determined groups of women have brought about lasting change in their communities let by dedicated support teams. The SEWA bank is the first to be quoted in the list of successful examples.
Of course we do not know much about the kind of bank planned other than the fact that it will be a Public Sector bank with an initial capital of Rs. 1000 crores. Will it have an all women’s board? Will the CEOs only be women? Will it only have women employees? Will it accept deposits only from women? Will it lend only to women? Apparently, it will accept deposits from men too. Does it mean men can have accounts there too? So, will men be allowed into the branches? Will they be able to tell women what to write on their forms? Or will they be waiting outside while women transact? Who else will be waiting outside?
Creating artificial divisions based on gender really does not work – there will be a line where the humankind will have to meet as one. A women’s bank is only a token attempt at speaking to women, not a meaningful conversation. Again, when the last mile is explored the cracks begin to show. The real question is whether the overhead of a new bank is necessary or would the same interests, and genuine needs, be served best by directed and monitored inputs into specific retail programs. A thousand crores is not a small amount of money, especially when leveraged through the banking system. The question really is whether the cost of the additional infrastructure at the top is worth the loss to the principle of equality.
The real questions are both symbolic and pragmatic. What will the women’s bank achieve that the current banking system cannot with suitable support and supervision? What does the women’s bank stand for other than segregation and sequestration? It is almost patronising at first glance, and in the minds of some it gives women a bit less of a right to normal banking. Or it gives normal banking channels the leeway to walk away from designing more inclusive policies and processes – it is now so easy to say – ‘why don’t you go to the women’s bank?’ rather than invest in supportive programs. The women’s bank is certainly not an egalitarian construct – no positive discrimination is even as they aim for a more equitable society. For every such decision one wonders whether the costs, even as they seem to mimic investment in the future, are worth the possible benefits. One wonders what this is an investment in – a more gendered future?