Should there be a “Right to Bank Account?”

Financial inclusion (FI) has become one of the top priorities of federal banks and governments across the globe. The issue demands an even greater importance here in India as the financial inclusion situation is grim. Despite being the Asia’s third largest economy, nearly 40% of the people don’t have a bank account. An RBI panel headed by Nachiket Mor, a member of the RBI’s central board, recently proposed a new class of banks, christened as “payment” banks, to be set up to enhance the coverage of financial services in India. This is a step in the right direction and this article argues as to why should the people demand for a “right to bank account”?

Financial inclusion, as defined by Zeti Akhtar Aziz, noted Malaysian economist, is “About providing an opportunity for the world’s 2.5 billion unbanked and financially underserved to participate in the formal financial system…” The global financial crisis of 2008 acted as an eye opener with regards to the importance of financial awareness.  Bringing the “financially untouched” population into the mainstream banking would not only improve their lives, but also bolster the economy.

blg1Source: Livemint

In the absence of financial inclusion, unregulated lending services sprout up. They usually ask for very high interest rates and repayment period is too short for any productive investment. They can get bullish in nature and leave customers to pay through the nose. Kate McKee, a behavioural economics expert, claims that a person caught in the claws of private moneylenders shows declining decision making and crisis management skills. This degrades performance in any profession.

Financial inclusion benefits the economy in multiple ways. It provides an easier way for the state to transfer benefits to people. It will eliminate leakages and curb corruption. Thus, the result would be a reduction in the government’s subsidy bill and putting the public money to more efficient use.

Another benefit is that having a bank account will encourage people to save money, and deposits could be used to extend capital to businesses. Growth in the formal banking sector is known to reduce reliance on “black” money for financing. Availability of affordable and adequate credit from the banking sector is known to boost the entrepreneurial spirits of people.

Achieving inclusion in the country of one billion seems a humongous task, and it indeed is, but as the old saying goes, “where there is a will, there is a way.” Several developing countries have taken innovative measure to address the issues, and the results are stellar. Kenya, for example, has leveraged the widespread presence of mobile phones to introduce a mobile-based financial services system called “M-PESA”. It is used by one-third of their population for cashless transfers, savings, financial transactions, etc. and could be replicated in India.

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M-PESA Model: How it works

Even private lenders can be made a part of the financial inclusion system under strict regulatory control. Brazil has in place a network of 95000 banking agents who have helped pull around 13 million people into mainstream banking. Bangladesh has adapted its regulatory framework to suit the growth of women-led micro financing institutions.

The biggest obstacle to relaxing the norms for banking growth is the fear of banking services being exploited for money laundering or even worse, funding terrorist activities. Financial Action Task Force, an intergovernmental body, was established in 1989 to counter these issues. Mexico has tried to address the issue by having “tiered” regulatory framework. Low-value accounts relax on the background checks but are subjected to more stringent transaction restrictions.

In 2008, more than 80 developing countries came together to form the “Alliance for financial inclusion,” an international knowledge sharing network to discuss and design policies on financial inclusion. Seeing the momentum in world economies towards financial inclusion, RBI acknowledged that it is the need of the hour. Based on the proposals of panels and think tanks, it has taken several steps for the expansion of financial institutions in rural India:

  • No frills accounts: These are the most basic accounts which offer only the basic services. These accounts have zero balance requirements and have helped attract more than 12 million Indians into formal banking.
  • Relaxation of Know Your Customer (KYC) requirements: No frill accounts can be opened up by showing up any one of a variety of photo IDs. For low-risk individuals, full KYC data updating exercise has to be carried out only after every ten years as compared to the norm of five years.
  • Banks at the doorstep: The introduction of information and communication technology, e-commerce, financial inclusion fund and online updates on markets, etc. have brought banks to the doorsteps.

The statistics presented below shows that these measures have achieved partial success in increasing the penetration of financial institutions in rural areas. “Crisil Inclusix Index” is used as a measure of FI. It collates three crucial parameters of bank penetration: branch penetration, deposit penetration and credit penetration. The Index has increased from 40 to 35 in the last five years, but it is mostly high for the states with high literacy. This implies that the poor, uneducated people who truly need an account are still excluded.

blg3Source: Livemint

 Under the recent proposal of RBI, existing banks are going to be allowed to open subsidiaries serving as payment banks. The Panel further proposes to have a universal electronic bank account (UEBA) for every person on the lines of the Unique Identification card scheme of central government.  Experts welcome the Mor’s proposals and believe that the concept of “payment banks” could prove to be a game changer. As Shinjini Kumar, head of banking at PWC India commented in financial express “I definitely think the proposed payment banks are better suited to achieve the objective of increasing penetration compared to the universal banks,”

Financial inclusion of the bottom half of the financial pyramid is an arduous, but crucial task that requires government will, support from leadership across political parties and careful policy crafting by RBI. We have this opportunity of leveraging the dormant potential of the financially secluded section of our economy. Who knows, it may herald a new era of growth and prosperity for all. So yes, it is time for government to give some serious thought to “Right to bank Account.”

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Vaibhav Kumar Singh is a PGP-2 student at IIM Ahmedabad and a member of Consult Club. He did his internship with The Boston Consulting Group. Prior to joining IIMA, he worked as a Software Development Engineer at Microsoft and as a research scholar at INRIA, France. He is a graduate in Computer Science & Engg. from IIT Jodhpur.

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