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How banking correspondents revolutionise financial inclusion for rural women in India’s economic landscape

Rural women in India are fast becoming part of the country’s expanding banking story. AP

Financial inclusion of rural women is key for inclusive growth in India. However, most rural women have limited engagement with formal financial services beyond withdrawing government benefits. In this context, banking correspondents (BCs), as intermediaries between banks and the unserved, can extend financial services to more rural women.

Need for rural women’s financial inclusion

Extensive efforts under the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana have enabled basic bank account ownership for 513 million Indians, 55 per cent of whom are women. However, most rural women only withdraw government transfers into their PMJDY accounts occasionally, lacking awareness of operationalizing accounts for savings, credit, insurance, or pensions.

Their limited mobility and financial literacy thwart active participation. However, financial inclusion can significantly empower rural women economically. Access to bank accounts raises women’s savings and control over finances. Availing credit unlocks income generation opportunities, building sustainable livelihoods. Insurance serves as a cushion against income shocks during emergencies or disasters. Hence, financial inclusion among rural women is essential and calls for particular attention.

Emergence of banking correspondents

Banking correspondents have bridged the gap between formal financial institutions and infrastructure-deprived rural communities over the past decade. BCs facilitate basic banking transactions through micro-ATMs, biometric devices, and mobile phones. Equipped with e-KYC, RuPay cards, and Aadhaar-enabled interfaces, BCs enable the opening of bank accounts, deposits, withdrawals, remittances, and payments, thereby driving financial literacy.

Strategies for BCs to enable rural women’s financial inclusion

Enhancing financial inclusion among rural women in India necessitates a multi-pronged approach. The first step is expanding the women banking correspondent network. Increasing the number of women BCs can drive preference-based outreach to more rural women, as they may be more comfortable interacting with women BCs. The government’s aim to raise the share of women BCs to one-third of agents aligns with this strategy.

BCs can also drive the uptake of specially designed financial products that address rural women’s needs, such as micro-savings, credit, and micro-insurance. However, the lack of digital awareness among rural women hinders the usage of these products. Therefore, promoting digital literacy is crucial. BCs equipped with biometric devices and mobile wallets can enable digital transactions, but digital literacy drives through BCs and women’s self-help groups (SHGs) are needed to ensure these tools are effectively utilised.

Continued training on procedures, products, technology, and communication for BCs would improve services and boost adoption. In parallel, providing attractive commissions can motivate BCs to bring more rural women into the formal financial fold. Activity-based incentives for account openings, credit linkages, and microinsurance policy distribution could be particularly effective.

Simplifying ‘Know Your Customer’ (KYC) requirements would assist more rural women with account opening, and e-KYC methods can ease verification requirements. However, the success of these measures is contingent on the availability of basic infrastructure. Upgrading rural infrastructure, such as electricity, internet connectivity, and transport links, is therefore essential to bolster BC operations and women’s access.

Finally, engaging women’s Self-Help Groups (SHGs) can create peer learning on financial products. Given that over 8 crore rural women are linked to microfinance through women SHGs, partnering with these groups can significantly enhance the reach and impact of financial inclusion initiatives. This interconnected and structured approach can significantly enhance the role of BCs in promoting financial inclusion among rural women in India.

Conclusion

Banking Correspondents play a transformative role in India by progressively expanding financial access across rural areas. As vital conduits between formal finance and regions lacking infrastructure, BCs are bridging the gap in these regions. The potential of BCs to sustainably expand financial access is being realised through supportive regulatory changes on KYC norms, upgrades in rural infrastructure, and the promotion of universal digital literacy. These initiatives are paving the way for a more inclusive financial landscape.

In addition to these developments, a concerted push towards training more women as BCs is underway. This, combined with the introduction of women-centric financial products, has the potential to draw more rural women into the formal financial system. By prioritizing the financial inclusion of rural women, we can significantly advance financial security and income stability for rural households. This approach not only empowers women but also contributes to the overall economic development of rural areas.

The author is chairman of BLS E-Services. Views expressed in the above piece are personal and solely that of the author. They do not necessarily reflect Firstpost’s views.

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