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In Varanasi, the poorest are the most creditworthy for blessings. Open-ended credit is available without any legally-binding contracts;yet, the rate of default is less than one percent. Bankers maintain they've never had sleepless nights thinking about the liquidity risk they run;not even, ever, about bad debts or non-performing asset accounts. Considering they have the direct patronage of Lord Ram himself, this, investors believe, is a system that can never sink. As for Standard & Poor's, they would probably give the Ram banks a credit rating of AAA.
For a cashless system that sustains itself on a rock solid system of faith, the Ram banks follow some fairly stringent norms. At Varanasi's Ram Ramapati Bank, the oldest among the growing network of Ram banks, 'Ram naam' loans are given out on priority basis to those in dire need of blessings. "We believe that people turn to God when everything else has failed. To help them through this difficult phase, we urge them to remember God and believe that they will receive divine help, " says Ashish Mehrotra, the youngest member of the family that manages the Ram Ramapati bank.
Getting a loan from the 85-year-old bank that was started in 1926 by Mehrotra's great grandfather, Das Chhannulal, however, is not easy. Loans of Ram naam are given out to anyone with an unfulfilled desire who makes a supplication to the deity through the bank. There are a strict set of rules and regulations, though, which customers must follow. They have to promise to write Ram naam 1, 25, 000 times - 500 times daily, only between 4 am and 7 am, and in the format prescribed by the bank using red powder ink diluted with water from the Ganga. Once the loan is granted, all material is supplied to customers, free of cost, with the exception of the Gangajal. But the rules are flexible for those who cannot access the river. "Our followers from Egypt, for instance, are allowed to use water from the Nile, " Mehrotra says.
Difficult conditions notwithstanding, Ram Ramapati bank has accumulated over 1. 5 lakh life members over the years. It has also inspired other Ram naam banks across the country and the globe. In Ayodhya, Ram's birthplace, for instance, the Ram naam collection at the International Shri Sitaram Naam Bank has touched an impressive 9, 500 crore. "We have a prescribed format, but we also receive Ram naam written on various surfaces from followers. We also accept Ram naam in all languages, " says Mahant Puneet Ramdas, the bank's manager since its inception in 1970. With a network of 101 branches across India, USA, Canada, Nepal and Fiji, the bank's market is expanding rapidly.
If businesses depend on profitability, then this one is a big success - followers of the Ram banks claim to have reaped rich dividends. In Lucknow, health worker Tapeshwari Tiwari and her husband Lavlesh were unable to bear a child. After consulting his guru, Lavlesh wrote Ram naam and fasted in silence for five years. Soon after, the couple was blessed with a daughter, Rajni. That's when the Tiwaris set up Ram Ram bank in Lucknow. "We started accepting Ram naams from people in any form, all colours and on every surface. Gradually, as more people enlisted, some followers offered support by printing booklets, others by shipping the finished sets to the bank in Ayodhya. Tiwari says, "We receive hundreds of completed booklets and pamphlets in a month. Once we exhaust the storage space in our home, we ship the Ram naam booklets to Ayodhya. "
In Ayodhya's Chhoti Chhavni area, home to the International Shri Sitaram Naam Bank, the Ram naam collection is piled at least 30 feet high, and that's only one pile. In Varanasi's Ram Ramapati bank, bundles of Ram naam are neatly stacked, layer-upon-layer, in iron shelves and built-in storage vaults in walls. "We clean the rooms and sets of Ram naam received from followers, routinely. If the paper frays, however, it is offered to the Ganges after a formal ceremony, " Mehrotra said. In Ayodhya, Puneet Ramdas offers the disintegrating sheets of paper to the Saryu.
For a banking system that registers an average growth of over 30 per cent every year, providing storage space and raw material is a challenge. In Ayodhya, the Sitaram bank is considering increasing the size of its vaults. In Varanasi, Mehrotra says more than space, sourcing raw material is increasingly difficult. Wooden pens, for instance, are not easily available anymore. Will the market of faith slump if age-old traditions change? Only Ram knows.
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