Financial Inclusion and Rural Entrepreneurship

Financial inclusion has given a strong foundation to the economy by making more and more people self-reliant, giving a fillip to entrepreneurship across the country

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Financial inclusion (FI) is essentially providing access to basic financial products and services needed by vulnerable groups such as weaker sections and low-income groups at affordable costs in a fair and transparent manner.

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In India, the financial inclusion drive has always been bank-led. There were initiatives such as creating co-operative banks, regional rural banks, post office accounts, nationalization of banks, NBFCs, MFIs, local area banks and the recent initiatives of Payments Bank and Small Finance Bank. These initiatives have made some valuable contributions to the inclusion push.

But, the biggest policy initiative towards financial inclusion was made by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) when they allowed banks to utilize the services of business correspondents (BCs) to provide basic banking service to the customers. Use of technology played a vital role in this initiative.

This is the time when the term “financial inclusion” gained currency.

Banks started deploying BC outlets in unbanked villages in collaboration with fintechs and distribution network owning entities. These BC outlets started opening bank accounts of the financially excluded people. 

Initially, there was criticism that most of the Jan Dhan accounts were lying unutilized with zero balance. At that time, it was true too. But now, things have changed substantially. There are around 450 million Jan Dhan accounts with an aggregate balance of INR 1.50 trillion. This means that there is an average balance of over INR 3,300 per account.

As this initiative started growing in size, banks started seeing financial inclusion as a viable proposition and an excellent source of finding new market at the bottom of the pyramid: a market with huge growth potentials.

Enabling rural entrepreneurship

The business correspondent initiative: There are over 2.5 million BC outlets in the country and about 2 million of them are in rural India. These are owned and manned by local people, mostly the youth.

Most of them are poor and first time entrepreneurs. This is one single direct impact of financial inclusion on entrepreneurship in general, and rural entrepreneurship in particular. 

The need of cash in rural areas is being mostly met by the BC channel as banks are reducing the number of ATMs in rural and semi-urban centres because of their extremely high operational and maintenance cost. Migrant workers send money from metropolises to their relatives who go to the local BC agent to get the cash. The BC business will continue to grow as Banks are trying to move out most of their small transactions and products to their BC outlets.

Rural credit: Rural credit for agriculture and MSME–a major tool for financial inclusion–immensely helps rural entrepreneurship grow. MFIs and Small Finance Banks have done well in this field but their efforts are constrained by resource crunch. Their operations are also often quite localized. 

The commercial banks have the financial resource but they do not have the reach. 

As a result, the share of rural credit in the overall credit from all the recognized channels hovers around 8-9 per cent although majority of Indians live in villages.

But then, things have gradually started looking up. Now that almost the entire population has a digital identity through Aadhaar, and as e-KYC is a very convenient and user-friendly tool, the banks, including the private ones, have started venturing into the rural markets for increasing their lending portfolio.

Banks are also using the services of BCs and companies with large distribution network for loan lead generation, creating more scope for rural self-employment.

Many Banks and NBFCs have tied up with fintechs for tech tools to onboard the rural entrepreneur seeking credit and also for follow up. Credit Information bureaus, use of AI and algorithms, etc. have also added to the confidence of banks and NBFCs.

Self-help groups

Creation and financing of self-help groups/joint liability groups in rural areas is a significant financial inclusion initiative to create entrepreneurship among the rural poor, especially the women. During these times of pandemic, SHGs in around 400 districts have been making face masks to earn their livelihood.

India has more than 10 million bank-linked SHGs and 90 per cent of these are women SHGs. These SHGs have 120 million members and their aggregate deposits with Banks is more than INR 23,000 crore.

Some SHGs have also tied up with e-commerce sites to broaden their market. However, this is one area that requires more attention and better awareness.

An opportunity for e-commerce sites

Rural India is a huge reservoir of talent and innovative products. There is also a humungous market for handicraft, ethnic goods, native food items like pickles, folk art, etc. But the rural entrepreneur cannot access that market due to the lack of knowledge and infrastructure. E-commerce sector can play a big role in enabling the rural entrepreneurs to grow their business. It will be a win-win situation for everyone.

The difficulty of the e-commerce sites in reaching out to the far flung villages is understandable. However, the e-commerce businesses can easily access the rural markets by utilizing the services of some organizations which have already built a tech-enabled distribution network in even small tier-VI villages.

Bringing other financial products to villages

There is a massive rural market for many financial products such as insurance, mutual fund, investment in shares, etc. But, even the most popular of these products, insurance, has a meagre 3.76 per cent market penetration in India. This number for the rural India would be abysmal. Now, some private insurance companies have started tying up with companies with a big distribution network to sell their products in the hinterlands. Similar scope exists also for taking the mutual fund and broking business. These initiatives have already started creating newer avenues for self-employment in rural geographies. 

Other payment products

There are many other payment products such as bill payments, recharge of mobiles, DTH and OTT, ticketing, etc., for which too there is a big rural market. The number of mobiles and internet connections has increased exponentially but people are still very hesitant to make payments themselves digitally. A study showed that a very large number of smartphone owners in India used their phones for entertainment but only a miniscule proportion used it for financial transactions. The growing number of such payment transactions through the “assisted mode” validates this. Selling these products/ services will remain a viable option for the rural entrepreneurs, especially for those who want to supplement their income from other sources.

Conclusion

The pandemic has affected the economy very badly. Unemployment has increased and millions of people have been pushed to deeper poverty. But, this is a passing phase. Things have already started looking up. Financial inclusion has given a strong foundation to the economy by making more and more people self-reliant, giving a fillip to entrepreneurship across the country. This will benefit India immensely in the long run.