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All-women bank

Banking on women

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ON THE MONEY: Baruah (top) started the bank in 1998 with 4 employees

Chidambaram may have hit upon the idea now, but Lakhimi Baruah of Jorhat has been running a profitable all-women bank for the past 14 years.

When finance minister P Chidambaram announced an allwomen public sector bank in his Budget speech, Lakhimi Baruah was thrilled. The 64-year-old, who lives in Jorhat in Assam, has been providing banking services for women, by women since 1998. "You don't know how happy I am that the finance minister proposed this. It will empower women financially, " she says.

Baruah should know: Her Kanaklata Mahila Urban Co-operative Bank has 21, 000 customers and a working capital of Rs 6 crore. Since the day she started it on November 14, 1998, her bank has been showing a profit while lending to some of the poorest women in the district. About 75 per cent of the customers are women, mostly illiterate and from backward communities. More than 300 women's self-help groups have benefited from the bank's micro-credit and credit facilities.

Kanaklata Mahila Urban Co-operative Bank, named after the Assamese woman freedom fighter Kanaklata Baruah, has three branches in Jorhat district, run by 14 women, including Lakhimi Baruah. It has extended services to neighbouring Golaghat and Sivsagar districts. The governing body of the bank plans to ask the Assam government to allow it to serve the entire state.

"We set up the bank in a rented house in Jorhat town with four women employees and an initial capital of Rs 8. 46 lakh. In 2000, we got our license from the RBI and have not looked back. Today, we have our own buildings and have 8, 000 members of the co-operative, " she says.

The idea of opening such a bank came to her in the 1980s, when she was a social worker helping economically weaker women in Jorhat. Baruah realised that poor women tried to save money but in the absence of access to conventional banks and formal accounts, they could not build up their savings. "I started exploring avenues to open a bank to take care of financial services for women. I thought a bank run by women would be able to understand the needs and concerns of women better, " she says.

However, there are limitations to a cooperative bank, which is why Baruah welcomes Chidambaram's plan for a public sector bank for women. "Our bank is like a rivulet in comparison to a public sector bank, which is a sea. A public sector bank for women will be able to overcome the limitations and reach more women in the country, " she says.

Baruah retired a few years ago but the management has retained her as managing director on extension for the next two years. She is actively working on making online services available. "Till my last breath I want to work for my bank, " she says. "I want to see women banks flourish across the country. "

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