First, the good news. Over the past few years, India has been moving rather aggressively towards bringing all Indians under the banking fold. Back of the envelope calculations suggest that 480 million Indians, about 96 million households, did not have access to banking as recently as 4/5 years ago. Well, since then, after some pushing by the RBI, the finance ministry and state governments, the number of No Frill Accounts, which target this chunk of our population, had climbed to 79.5 million by March last year. It is estimated at about 100 million now. The number of places which access to banking itself had trebled between 2009 and 2011 — zooming up from 35,000 or so to 105,000 locations.
However, look beyond the aggregate numbers and more worrying stats emerge. The vast majority of these accounts — three different studies estimate this percentage as ranging between 80-90% — lie dormant. The reasons are manifold. There is an absence of banking products that make it easy for the poor to save. This expansion of banking has largely been through banking correspondents (BCs), locals hired as quasi-representatives of banks. And this model isnot working so far — the representatives drop out of the business saying they don’t earn enough; elsewhere, village elite become BCs and use this new found control over fellow villagers’ financials to reinforce their hegemony over the village.
Such tentative adoption of bank accounts has serious ramifications for an ongoing transition the government sees as a game-changer in the delivery of welfare programmes: direct transfer of Rs 3,00,000 crore of benefits like food and fertiliser subsidies and government schemes into bank accounts. Once that happens, banks and BCs, not local bureaucrats and village sarpanches, will deliver welfare benefits.
On the whole, things are delicately poised. Most of these accounts have been opened with KYC documents. They belong to real people. The government can indeed start flowing its welfare programmes down this pipeline, betting people will start using the accounts on their own. The problems lie elsewhere. For one, we are not very sure about the BC as delivery channel — does it work? is it indeed more cost-effective than the channels used till now?