The term ‘financial inclusion' reminds me of the first ethos of democracy that is ‘equality', equal treatment, equal opportunity and equal availability of resources. It simply means providing financial services at a minimum cost to sections of underprivileged and low-income segments of society, making all individual contributing to the economic growth.
If we go by research reports, India stood in the bottom few countries in financial inclusion until 2011, which caused financial disparity and uneven growth, a major setback for the developing nation. However, the recent multi-layered approach towards financial inclusion indicates a strong step towards eliminating this socio-economic hindrance. According to World Bank data, around 2 billion people in the world don't use or have access to formal financial service and about 50% of the poorest households are unbanked. The experts believe, the inclusion of these unbanked population would reduce the economic inequality, World Bank aims to complete Universal Financial Access (UFA) by 2020.
The India Scene: Though the term was coined in the year 1994, the history of financial inclusion goes back to the pre-independence era of the first foundation of the modern banks. As time rolled, India, a new democracy did its own bit to include the poor and deprived population to include in the financial system. However, the history of banking in India had its image deep-rooted in Indians as ‘for rich and wealthy', which restrained the poverty-stricken less privileged to knock the door of banks. They kept relying on unorganised money-lenders who preyed on the poor. Few major steps in this era included nationalising the banks between 1969-1980. It was only the first step towards a long marathon. This era also built the foundation of RRBs (Regional Rural Banks), formed to serve the large unbanked population of rural areas and promoting financial inclusion.
The year 1991 marked the new wave of liberalisation reforms in trade and economic policies in India, which also brought the private banks into existence. The process of opening branches in rural India, however, remained slow.
Real Growth: For long, banks ignored the remote and rural areas of India to focus on their profit and keeping their costs in check. RBI played a catalyst in the modern reform by permitting banks to engage business facilitators (BFs) and BCs as intermediaries for providing financial and banking services, also known as Bank Mitra. To further penetrate rural India, RBI simplified branch authorisation in December 2009, allowing domestic scheduled commercial banks to freely open branches in tier III to tier VI towns and villages with a population of less than 50,000 under general permission.
In the last decade, India has witnessed a paradigm shift in the approach of financial inclusion, from a social responsibility it has turned into a full-fledged ‘mission'. The true essence of financial inclusion is reflected in the series of initiatives under the leadership of PM Narendra Modi. Keeping up with the demand of millennial generation and new economic environment, financial inclusion is now not limited to opening bank branches in rural areas and frill-free bank accounts. There have been multiple action parallely undertaken like a revolution to reach the goal. Besides direct approach, the government also facilitating other institutions in their efforts and keeping up with the need of modern financial reforms.
Year 2011 onwards
The series of new initiatives are compelling the unbanked population to open a bank account and link it to Aadhaar and PAN to receive government subsidies and other assistance. It is not a one-time approach, but the persistent effort can be seen through action at multiple levels attacking the root cause.
During the period 2011 – 2015, the unbanked population of India halved from 57.7 crores to 23.3 crores, as reported in a PwC research. PradhanMantri Jan DhanYojna (PMJDY) and demonisation drive together mobilised about 26 crores of unbanked population to the formal financial ambit further lowering the number.
With PMGDY, the government also introduced term insurance policy for all, Pradhan MantriJeevan Jyoti Yojana (Rs. Two lakh sum assured for An annual premium of Rs. 330) and health insurance scheme Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana (Rs. Two lakh sum insured for a premium of Rs. 12). The Adhaar linked accounts now can also be used for UPI with a smart phone or even feature phones (mobile wallet). To encourage the unbanked population, the consistent efforts are made through the demonetisation drive, direct subsidies and now monetary assistance for pregnant women in the underserved population amongst other. The regulations in microfinance business over last decade have made financial services affordable for the poor. The introduction of payment banks and small banks only ensures a better reach to the rural and remote areas without proper infrastructure facility.
A recent research report by BCG mentioned India to be making the fastest progress in the financial inclusion drive. Including digital mode of banking in the base level is expected to further strengthen the movement as the number of mobile users exceeds the bank account holders with a high margin. Given the infrastructure and resource constraints, digitisation drive will make rural banking viable and efficient.
Communication: The recent moves of PMJDY account and demonetisation was well covered by all media outlets and PM intelligently used media for the benefit of the nation especially with his ‘Mann ki Baat' on radio and announcements on national TV Doordarshan. Going further, communication will play an important role. Experts will agree, India, the country with the world’s second largest population is known for its diverse culture and socio-economic system. As the focus is to reach the rural and remote areas and include them in the financial system, the communication tool and strategy need to merge with the local flavour while keeping the key message intact. The localisation of communication strategy efforts will further improve the trust of the rural to only open but transact and maintain their bank accounts for their own benefits.
If we think logically, the common mass media used for the tier-I cities would be quite irrelevant for the tier-II and below, however widely it can report the issue. For an effective communication programme, three major aspects would be: 1. Targeting right Influencer group 2.Choosing the right platform/ tool and 3. Designing the key message.
Choosing the right Influencer group will be as important as the messaging. The village communities are largely influenced by their Panchayat, school going or educated children, teachers, doctors, postmen and local heroes. The benefits of bank account and choosing formal financial products can be promoted in platforms like local events through plays, sponsorship programs of self-help groups, training children in the government schools, training volunteers to spread the message in the community etc. Sharing a digital demo should be an important element of the campaign. The content of the messaging should be touching the right cords of the rural population.
An informed society makes a better decision. So, educating them in the right direction is also a core responsibility of powers that be, apart from providing mere services.