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Millennium Post

Symbolic win, but not enough

Is the launch of India’s first all-woman bank in Mumbai really a landmark development? Bharatiya Mahila Bank, which was inaugurated by the luminaries of the UPA government, including the PM Manmohan Singh and FM P Chidambaram, as well as attended by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, might not be as progressive an idea as it appears to be at first glance. The fact the bank picked Mumbai to open its first branch, speaks volumes on the kind of service that one would expect from the new banking institution joining the block. Of course, it has also started operations in Kolkata, Chennai, Guwahati and three other regions, but will it offer any particular service that is not already available at the other regular banks?

While it’s true that the all-woman bank has enormous symbolic significance for the country as a whole, it remains to be seen what exactly are going to be its path-breaking contributions to the national landscape?  Most of the nationalised banks already cater to the poorer sections of the society, with special schemes for women and those from the backward classes. So the point about BMB enabling financial inclusion of women from less-privileged segments of society doesn’t hold enough water. And, despite P Chidambaram’s declaration that BMB will open a branch in every state capital, isn’t it more important to open a branch in the remoter parts of states than in the heart of its capital?

Had BMB opened its first branch in an obscure little corner of the country, where banking facilities are still a distant dream, it would have made much more sense. While RBI has mandated banks to open one rural branch for every three branches opened in urban areas, BMB had gone ahead and inaugurated its first branch in the commercial heart of India, Mumbai. Having done that, it has established its credential as yet another banking institution that has more a nominal and ceremonial value, rather than actual significance for the larger public. It’s true that women are the lesser privileged half in this country, but their status cannot be taken in isolation without taking into account the other axes of under-privilege, which include class, caste, religion and other entrenched biases.
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