You can bank on this lady

Lakhimi Baruah realised that most banks are not women-friendly. So, she decided to set-up an all-women’s bank, first of its kind in the Northeast, finds out  Ratna Bharali Talukdar.

Six months ago, Purnima Das, a lower primary school teacher, who had recently divorced her alcoholic, abusive husband, wanted to procure a small plot of land to secure the future of her only daughter. For that, she needed a loan, but the thought of approaching a regular bank scared her. She knew there would be tons of paperwork involved, and even then she was not sure if her application would be approved. That’s when Purnima made up her mind to get in touch with Lakhimi Baruah, 65, the brains behind the first all-women’s bank in the Northeast, in the Upper Assam town of Jorhat. As she had anticipated, Purnima got her soft loan in no time and with minimal hiccoughs.  

Two months later, she came back with one of her friends who, too, was a single woman with an only daughter in need of a loan to buy land. The similarities in their circumstances and stories made Lakhimi curious. When she made further inquiry with Purnima, Lakhimi realised that the problems these women were facing were quite common. While Purnima had at least managed to get a divorce, her friend was still suffering torture at the hands of her husband. “She came to know that I had managed to avail of a loan without suffering unnecessary harassment meted out to women like us, in the name of procedures. She then got the courage to take that first step towards freeing herself from her husband by applying for a loan to buy her own piece of land,” narrates Purnima.

Women like Purnima and her friend have been traditionally reluctant to approach a mainstream bank, foregoing the financial assistance they could have otherwise easily obtained. Lakhimi had understood this dilemma very well over 16 years ago when she was working for Central Co-operative Bank in Jorhat. As an employee, dealing with customers on a daily basis, she quickly realised that banks were failing to address women-specific issues. That’s when the unique idea of setting up a women’s bank - to empower impoverished women by making them financially able and independent - came to her. 

Lakhimi quit her secure job to establish the Kanaklata Women Urban Cooperative Bank (KWUCB) and her dream institution opened its doors to customers in 1998. Despite many teething troubles and fiscal challenges, the KWUCB, which received its license from the Reserve Bank of India in 2000, has only grown over the years. Baruah has opened three branches in the district reaching out to over 28,000 customers. “Two more branches – one in adjoining Sivasagar district and another in Golaghat district – are coming up soon,” the banker reveals proudly. A large section of KWUCB’s clients are tea garden labourers, daily wage earners or scavengers. Most of them have very low levels of literacy, which is why Baruah insists that all the 27 employees of her bank, treat the women with compassion.

 “These women feel that the female employees of our bank are sympathetic to them and make an effort to help out wherever possible. A section of male bankers are quite insensitive and apathetic to women customers who may be battling domestic crises,” elaborates Lakhimi.

Baruah and her team have designed a number of innovative schemes, including the Zero Balance Account, the Kanaklata Daily Deposit (KDD) and the option to start a recurring deposit at just Rs 20. A customer can also avail of a loan of up to Rs 9 lakh. KWUCB is also the preferred banker of a large number of Self-Help Groups, as it has introduced a number of micro-finance schemes.

 “We have introduced these small deposit instruments because they have proveduseful in times of family emergencies, health crises and the like. When we motivate women to come forward and save with us, often they have to open an account quietly, keeping family members in the dark. But when a dire need surfaces, families then discover that  women of their households have been keeping money aside and they are valued for their contribution. Financial independence always increases the status of women within their families,” notes Lakhimi.

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