Season 2, Episode 3: A bank for women in India featuring Chetna Sinha

October 12, 2021
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IFC speaks to Chetna Sinha, founder of Mann Deshi Mahila Cooperative Bank, a bank in India aimed at rural women.

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In this episode, IFC speaks to Chetna Sinha, founder of Mann Deshi Mahila Cooperative Bank, a bank in India aimed at rural women. Chetna speaks to us about what financial literacy means for women, why it’s important to have access to a bank account and what financial institutions can do to empower women in India.

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This is Creating markets from the International Finance Corporation.

Jasmin Bauomy (host): Hello, and welcome to another episode of Creating Markets. I'm your host, Jasmin Bauomy, and on today’s episode we are talking about the importance of financial literacy for women. And to do that, I sat down with Chetna Sinha, who’s somewhat of a legend in Indian finance.

Chetna Sinha: So hi, I'm Chetna Sinha. I started the first rural women's bank in India.

JB: Chetna is an activist and entrepreneur who has worked her whole life to empower women in India. She’s also the CEO of Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank; that’s a bank that gives microfinance loans and helps women save money in rural areas. When she started her career she visited rural India.

CS: And so I started going to villages in India and there I met my husband who is a farmer, fell in love, married him and decided to leave Mumbai. So my family was devastated. I mean, I started staying with my family in the village. It was very interesting to see that, there were no like any opportunity for income generation and still, they wanted to improve their lives, right?

JB: So Chetna, she decided to help create that opportunity. But, before we dive into just how she did that, this season we’re starting every episode with some icebreaker questions followed by a three part interview where we try and answer these important questions. One: How did we get here? Two: What’s going on right now? And three: Where is this industry going in the future? So, first, breaking the ice.

JB: Just talking about something that we all can relate to sitting in our home offices these days, what is something or a habit that you've developed over the pandemic or, certain food or certain drink or, is there anything that you cannot survive in your home office without?

CS: Music.

JB: Oh really, do you listen to music while you work?

CS: Yes, I do, that is one.

JB: That's amazing. Um, what type of music do you listen to?

CS: So it's, Indian music. More of like Indian classical. But little bit now I have also learned a little bit to listen to jazz music from my son. And otherwise, uh, I have this app, Headspace, which gives like, you know, some relaxing meditating music. Otherwise, I also do a lot of exercises and all that, yoga.

JB: Do you have a yoga mat in your office?

CS: Yes!

JB: Now, back to Chetna’s story. So once Chetna moved to her husband’s village from Mumbai, she met women there. Women who were financially struggling.

CS: When I came here, the one thing I was very clear and which I observed also, is that it's not that the women in the village in India don't know anything. They know. They have not had an opportunity. Not an opportunity to go to school, not an opportunity to have anything like, and so at the age of 13, they would get married, then have a family, and then get to survive.

JB: I'm very curious. Was there a certain situation or a certain person that, that triggered this in you that you said, “Oh, okay, this is enough. I'm just going to start this bank.”

CS: So at night I was staying in the village and I was talking to one lady. I was like, you know, you, “What do you think that your life, how your life would improve here?” And I had many things in my mind, So this lady said, “I want to save my money and not a single bank is opening the account.” She wanted to save her money with the banks. So I said, okay, why don't we go to the banks the next day? And I went with her to the banks, different banks. Just like she wants to open an account. And this lady was a street vendor doing a blacksmith business. So she said, “Whatever I earn daily I want to save it because my husband also drinks and many times takes away my money.” I told banker that she wants to save daily. A very small amount. So the banks denied saying that, because the amount that she wants to save is a very small amount. All the banks denied. So then I decided, why not start the bank for women like her?

JB: Wow… Did you have any banking, finance experience when you started this entire thing? I mean, how, if somebody says Jasmin go start a bank. I'd have no idea. I would have to Google my heart out, but back then there was no Google. So, how did you even--how does one do that?

CS: You know what, Jasmin, I think it was so good that not only there was no Google, that was so good. But also I was not in Mumbai. I had no banking background. I have studied economics though. If I would’ve been in Mumbai, I would have asked some MBAs, I would have asked the advice of other people. The way that banker told me, “She is not an affordable client for me, my bank will not make a profit.” But here these women were so firm. And so I had no idea, no background. The only thing was that they were so firm and passionate about it, that other questions didn't come in my mind. How will it happen? What will happen? Will we be able to run it?

Do we know how to do it? I felt that not having all these things around me, either it is Google or MBAs, in a way it was good that these things were not there.

JB: The more time Chetna was spending in the village, the more she saw how incredibly creative women had to be to save their money.

CS: I saw some women would save in boxes, then hide those boxes in the earth. Every single household I went in the village, every lady was saving and every lady wanted to save. Some lady would say, I am saving to buy two chickens. Some lady would say, I am saving so that in emergency if somebody's sick, I can have money. I was like quite amazed. None of them said like, “Oh, we don't have money. We don't know what to do. How are we going to survive? What will happen with my child?” Everybody was trying to find the solution in the situation where they were.

JB: Chetna sat down with these women, and she asked them: What if there was a bank? A bank that didn’t care how much money you earned or what your job was, a bank for women and by women.

CS: So, I would go to the village and we’d have a meeting and then said, okay, we need, we are starting the bank, we need to mobilize the member capital because this is a co-operative bank, right?

JB: Ok, now, I did get on google and type in… How to start a bank? And let me tell you - there are many kinds of banks -- central banks, investor banks, commercial banks. here’s retail banks where you go down to your local branch and ask to open a savings account. But these were the kind of banks that had turned down the women Chetna wanted to help. So Chetna decided to start a co-operative bank. Co-operative banks are owned by their members, so in order to function, they need to, well, get a lot of members to buy in.

CS: So we’d talk to women and they would say, “We will go and get other women to become a member.” And then we started going on two-wheeler to look from one village to another village. very day we would decide we would take the map and say that, okay, these, these women will go to these villages.

JB: The women that Chetna signed up would get up super early and then they’d take a bicycle or a motorbike, or hop on the back of a motorbike, and then go from village to village, from dawn till dusk. Speaking to women, telling them about their idea, signing them up.

CS: It was so interesting, on one side, the women were getting so excited, but actually on the other side, like men who were sitting, who would ask their wives, “Where are you going on that bicycle? And what are you doing?” And she would say, “We are setting up the bank.” And they would laugh, and not only laugh and make jokes, “Do you know how to count the money?”

CS: So when the men makes the fun of them, these women will stand out and say like, “Keep quiet, whatever they are doing is important.” Right? So that whole group gets confidence and power. So coming together gives them confidence.

JB: One thousand, three hundred and thirty-five women signed up to the bank. They called it Mann Deshi.

JB: Okay. Well, I'd like to move on to part two of the interview, which is to talk about kind of, um, where we are today and fast forward to your business and the state of women's access to finance in India. So if I walked into one of your banks today, what would I see? What would the atmosphere be like? What’s it like?

CS: As soon as you get into the bank, uh, there is one very big ATM machine. There's a lady sitting who would be there to guide, like, what they want to do. Right. So if she, if lady would say, I want to open a savings account. So she would direct her that go on this table that you can open the saving account.

JB: Is it a room full of women?

CS: Yes, it is a staff is all women.

JB: Yeah, it sounds like it's like, uh, a way to, you know, be, like you said, experience dignity in a place where usually you haven't been able to experience that.

CS: Yes.

JB: Now, the Mann Deshi bank has over 200,000 account holders. There’s been this ripple effect with more banks and microfinance organizations opening their doors in the country. Today if you’re a woman in a small village in India, it’s a lot easier to find somewhere to park your money, or an organization that will loan you money. But, that doesn’t mean that Chetna’s work is done. South Asia still has the world’s largest gender gap (that’s 18 percentage points) in bank account ownership at formal financial institutions. And one of the biggest challenges for women in rural India is gaining ownership of property.

CS: So culturally, what happens in India, in spite of having the equal rights to son and daughter, for the land, in the beginning we didn't have that. And in the inheritance, in the agriculture property, now daughters and sons have equal rights, but before we didn't have that. But still, there is a strong practice that the property will be in the son’s name or husband’s name. Women do not own property. Now when they don't own property, they won't be able to have collateral. Now, if they do not have collateral, they will not be eligible for the bigger loans. When you have to, it's very easy to ask government, “I should get my property,” but it's not that easy to ask your husband, your brother.

JB: Some women would tell Chetna that they were worried about asking their male family members to put land in their name. And it’s because their fear was that it could create upset to someone they love or create tensions in their family.

CS: They said, “We don't want to make them unhappy. We are not challenging.” So then how would we do? So then they said, “Why don’t we motivate them?”

JB: And so, Mann Deshi Bank went on a PR offensive aimed

CS: So the motivation, how do you do? So you get rebate interest, you will be celebrated in very huge public meeting that you have shared your property. Right? I'll share with you one example, one of our ladies, Sujata Mane, she bought the property in her name. She and her mother-in-law both decided, and they bought the property in her name...