Banks needs to avoid appointing all and sundry as their business correspondents, just to meet internal or policy targets
The government in India has adopted a very important strategy to try and achieve financial inclusion, using business correspondents (BC) to serve and service excluded segments of the population, especially those living in rural areas. However, while this is yet to take off in any serious manner, of late we have witnessed greater activity in this area during the BC model being pushed as an alternative route to financial inclusion (vis-à-vis MFIs—microfinance institutions).
While the idea of using BCs is perhaps appealing because of various benefits BCs may seem to provide, there are huge risks as well. This is especially true in the present environment in India, where there are many controversies with regard to financial services provided to low-income and excluded people, service delivery methods used, prices charged, etc, by the outsourced entities (such as BCs). As seen during 2010 and 2011, the new breed of micro-finance agents in India, who functioned almost like BCs, certainly created havoc in the lives of low-income people.
Therefore, it is imperative for regulators and supervisors to ensure that banks have an appropriate due diligence process in selecting their BCs. They must likewise ensure that banks avoid appointing all and sundry as their BCs, just to meet any (internal or policy targets) that may be imposed on them from time to time.
Specifically, the regulators and supervisors must encourage banks to develop a solid criteria that enable them to assess, prior to selection, a business correspondent’s capacity and ability to perform the various required activities effectively, reliably and most importantly, to a high standard, together with any potential risk factors associated with using a particular BC. Cost alone cannot be the deciding factor!
More importantly, the key emphasis must be on ensuring that the BC is indeed sensitive to the needs and situations of low-income clients and/or excluded segments of the population. Regulators and supervisors must also ensure that banks put in adequate client protection measures in the entire scheme of ‘outsourcing’ to BCs, and their on-site examination must verify the implementation of these in real time.
Among other things, such due diligence should include assessments with regard to the following (not exhaustive by any means):
a. Whether the business correspondent is really qualified and interested in performing the specified tasks?
b. Whether the business correspondent understands and can meet the objectives of the bank(s) in performing the specified activities?
c. Whether the business correspondent has the financial soundness, managerial capacity and all other resources in adequate measure to fulfill the obligations and successfully perform the various (outsourced) roles and activities?
d. Whether the business correspondent has the reach, resources and capacity to meet any special needs of the envisaged clients and/or the bank(s)?
e. Whether the business correspondent has proposed a viable operational model to fulfill its obligations and specified tasks?
And given the above background, I was rather surprised to see that Vakrangee Finserve won “the SBI RFP to become the common Banking Correspondent company for all public sector banks operating in Maharashtra. … Vakrangee won the five-year contract, which can be extended by another two years, with a price of 0.48%. The company will now have to appoint BC agents in 4,200 locations in Maharashtra. … If things go as the finance ministry wants them to, welfare payments to the rural/poor population will be routed through Vakrangee now. …The low value of the final bid took some of the other bidders by surprise.” (The Economic Times, 25 May 2012 - Vakrangee wins Maharashtra RFP, becomes common BC for public sector banks in the state
Having spent over two decades in working with rural and urban poor, I must say that such a low value of the final bid is beyond any reasonable comprehension. If there is one thing that I have learnt through my work in over 540 districts in India and elsewhere globally, it is that servicing the rural poor is rather costly and it certainly has minimum costs associated with it. That said, I am really baffled as to how the bidder (Vakrangee Finserve) expects to provide the required quality of service at the (extremely low) bid cost?
What then are the implications based on lessons from past experiences in India and abroad of similar services being outsourced? There are four distinct aspects that need to be looked at with regard to such low cost bids of government/public services. And the RBI and other regulators shaping the financial inclusion agenda certainly have a responsibility to do so:
a) How does the bidder gain cost advantages? Are these cost savings real or illusory? What is the real motivation of the bidder to bid for delivering the services in the first place?
For example, in other instances in India and abroad, companies have bid for large public contracts at extremely low (bid) prices Just to boost their credentials in the stock market—they have either abandoned the service and/or compromised severely on the quality of service provided after the stock manipulation objective has been achieved. Others have got a foot in the door (by winning the bid and extending the various services) and thereafter, have gone back for a revision of the contractual terms (including price) citing various reasons and loop holes. These are aspects that must be guarded against at all times by the RBI and other regulators concerned!
b) What about the quality of service? How is that (to be) maintained at minimum stipulated (quality) levels at all places? How can that be effectively monitored and ensured at all times during the service contract, especially given the remoteness of the rural locations?
For example, please see the proceedings of the meeting held under the chairmanship of the Haryana chief minister on 7th December, 2011 to review the implementation of Electronic Benefit Transfer Scheme and its convergence with Financial Inclusion Plan in Haryana. I quote from this report:
“The implementation at the ground level by the Business Correspondent appointed by the banks is not satisfactory. Non-availability of the BC agents at the field level tantamount to denial of banking service to senior citizens, destitute and disabled beneficiaries and their right to enjoy the benefit timely remittance into their bank accounts by the state government. The Director General, Social Justice & Empowerment informed that since the commencement of implementation from the month of April 2011, a total of Rs54 crore were disbursed manually using physical payee receipts through banks along with simultaneous enrolment for opening of bank accounts and another Rs504 crore was transferred into the bank accounts electronically up to 30 November 2011. In fact, as reported by the banks, an amount of Rs96 crore is still lying undisbursed as on 30 November 2011, though 80% of the total amount was released up to 12 August 2011. This shows that the infrastructure deployed by the business correspondent of the banks is grossly inadequate to provide a satisfactory level of banking service to the 2 million banking customers. Due to the uncertain and rare visit of the BC agent in the local area, there is no perception of banking service amongst the beneficiaries. The schedule of visits of the BC agent is uncertain causing inconvenience to the account holders. The average frequency of visit of the BC agent in the village has been once every 90 days and in some villages, there has been no visit at all in the last six months. An analysis of the transaction data supplied for a period of one month by the TSP indicates that the average transaction value is very high at Rs1,200 against the average monthly benefit of Rs615.
Other major problems encountered are non-operation of accounts; making manual payments using the department's E pay-order to banks, multiple accounts to the same person, not carrying out biometrics based de-duplication, Non establishment of customer complaint centers and non supply of transaction data for monitoring by the department.” (http://socialjusticehry.nic.in/proceedings.pdf)
All of these and similar issues need the attention of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and other regulators, especially when the bid is extremely low cost!
c) Is there cause to believe that the bid is a front for some other (corrupt or illegal) activity?
In other countries, especially in Africa, such bid-based public services have served as the platform for carrying on other (illegal) activities. That again needs to be focused on by the RBI and other regulators.
d) Will the low cost nature of the bid result in the poor and disadvantaged being further isolated?
This is a very serious question that the RBI and other regulators need to be clear about upfront as if that is the case, or else the whole objective of financial inclusion would really be lost
Therefore, while the desire to enhance and speed up financial inclusion is much appreciated, such a drive should also have appropriate risk mitigation mechanisms and safeguards so that things do not go wrong during implementation. The lessons from the 2010 micro-finance crisis are still fresh in memory indeed. And as far as the present situation is concerned, while I am not pre-judging Vakrangee Finserve in any manner what-so-ever, we will have to wait and see what they actually do on the ground in terms of their BC operations and the quality of BC services offered there in. That said, the RBI and other regulators who are actively pushing the BC model, will certainly have to look into the critical issues highlighted above if indeed they are really serious about financially including much (if not all) of India’s rural poor…
(Ramesh Arunachalam has over two decades of strong grass-roots and institutional experience in rural finance, MSME development, agriculture and rural livelihood systems, rural and urban development and urban poverty alleviation across Asia, Africa, North America and Europe. He has worked with national and state governments and multilateral agencies. His book—Indian Microfinance, The Way Forward, is the first authentic compendium on the history of microfinance in India and its possible future.)
Nifty may continue to be in positive if the day’s low hold
A slew of positive domestic news helped the market stage a smart recovery and snap its three-day decline. In the first hour of trade, the Nifty touched the low of 4,770, near the lows last seen on 10 January 2012. The index made a lower high and managed to close in the positive at 4,848. If the index manages to hold itself above today’s low we may the see it going up to the level of 4,910. Else we may see the benchmark falling to the level of 4,730. The National Stock Exchange (NSE) saw a volume of 50.61 crore shares.
The domestic market opened lower on unsupportive cues from its Asian peers, which were in the negative in morning trade on concerns about the slowdown in the global economy. The Nifty opened 45 points down at 4,797 and the Sensex resumed trade at 15,809, a loss of 156 points over its previous close.
Across-the-board selling pushed the indices to their intraday lows in first half hour itself. At the lows, the Nifty fell to 4,770 and the Sensex drifted back to 15,749. The benchmarks managed to recover from their lows as select buying supported the upmove.
Meanwhile, the rupee gained 19 paise to 55.35 against the dollar in mid-morning trade today, after opening lower at 5.58. Traders attributed the rupee’s gains to selling of the US greenback by banks and corporates.
The market hit its intraday high around 11.00am with the Nifty rising to 4,808 and the Sensex up at 15,868. However, the opening of the key European indices in the red capped the gains in the local market, which continued to trade sideways in the negative.
Positive signals helped the indices move higher in the post-noon session. The civil aviation ministry has reportedly posted a discussion paper on its website, has sought opinion from all stakeholders for a proposal to reduce state taxes on jet fuel to 4%. This apart, IMD sources said that conditions are favourable for the onset of the South West monsoon over Kerala in the next 48 hours. Also, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) today hinted at a cut in interest rates, saying moderation in inflation due to lower economic growth and cooling global oil prices provide room for easing monetary policy.
The recovery which began in the noon session continued till the end of trade, taking the benchmarks into the positive towards the close of trade. Hitting the day’s high, the Nifty went up to 4,858 and the Sensex regained the 16,000 mark to touch 16,013.
The indices pared a small part of their gains, but managed to close in the green after three continuous days of declines. The Nifty closed seven points higher at 4,848 and the Sensex gained 23 points to settle at 15,988.
The advance-decline ratio on the NSE was 704:976.
The broader markets underperformed the Sensex today, as the BSE Mid-cap index fell by 0.21% and the BSE Small-cap index slipped by 0.23%.
The BSE Capital Goods index (up 2.08%) was the top sectoral gainer today. It was followed by BSE Realty (up 1.35%); BSE Oil & Gas (up 1.17%); BSE Bankex (up 1.10%) and BSE Auto (up 0.78%). The losers were led by BSE Consumer Durables (down 2.92%); BSE Fast Moving Consumer Goods (down 1.53%); BSE Metal (down 0.605); BSE Healthcare (down 0.54%) and TECk (down 0.51%).
The Sensex toppers were Larsen & Toubro (up 3.43%); ONGC (up 3.19%); DLF (up 1.97%); Tata Motors (up 1.89%) and Reliance Industries (up 1.31%). The main losers were GAIL India (down 3.47%); Jindal Steel (down 2.72%); Tata Power (down 2.49%); Bharti Airtel (down 2.31%) and Sterlite Industries (down 2.30%).
The key performers on the Nifty were Jaiprakash Associates (up 5.59%); Siemens (up 4.60%); Bank of Baroda (up 3.77%); L&T (up 3.51%) and BPCL (up 3.41%). GAIL (down 3.07%); Jindal Steel (down 2.92%); Tata Power (down 2.85%); Sesa Goa (down 2.45%) and Asian Paints (down 2.38%) settled at the bottom of the index.
Markets across Asia closed lower on worries about the pace of global growth following a weak US jobs report and lower-than-expected manufacturing output from China. The impasse in Europe also added to the weakness.
The Shanghai Composite tumbled 2.73%; the Hang Seng tanked 2.01%; the Jakarta Composite sank 3.82%; the KLSE Composite declined 1.17%; the Nikkei 225 dropped 1.71%; the Straits Times declined 1.70%; the KOPSI Composite saw a cut of 2.80% and the Taiwan Weighted settled 2.98% lower.
At the time of writing, CAC 40, the French benchmark was in the green while the German DAX was in the negative. Markets in Britain were closed for a local holiday. The US stock futures were mostly in the positive.
Back home, foreign institutional investors were net sellers of shares totalling Rs220.38 crore while domestic institutional investors were net buyers of equities amounting to Rs205.50 crore.
Realty firm Omaxe has reduced its gross debt by Rs213 crore in the last fiscal to Rs1,339.55 crore from internal accruals. The debt-equity ratio has been brought down to 0.76 in 2011-12 fiscal from 0.93 in the previous financial year, the company said. The stock added 0.07% to close at Rs145.10 on the NSE.
Pipe-maker Man Industries (India) today said it has bagged orders worth Rs800 crore from the Middle East and domestic customers for supply of large diameter pipes for oil and gas sector. With these new orders, the outstanding order book of the company stands at nearly Rs1,800 crore. The stock settled at Rs96 on the NSE, down 0.88% from its previous close.
Consumer durables finance company, Bajaj Finserv Lending, has launched its “Extended Warranty” plan with zero per cent interest consumer durables finance. Under the extended warranty scheme, the company will provide protection of the cost towards repair and replacement arising out of unexpected defects after the manufacturer’s product warranty expires. Bajaj Finserv lost 2.81% to close at Rs635.50 on the NSE.
Parts of Kerala have been receiving rains since this morning. Weather watchers attribute the slight delay in the onset of monsoon to Typhoon Mawar which was active in a western Pacific Ocean off the Philippines
South-west monsoon, the key to the agriculture driven trillion-dollar Indian economy, is on course and is expected to drench Kerala by Wednesday thereby bringing much-needed relief to farmers, reports PTI.
“Monsoon is round the corner. Parts of Kerala have been receiving rains since this morning. We may declare the onset of monsoon over Kerala coast by Wednesday,” Laxman Singh Rathore, Director General, India Meteorological Department (IMD) told PTI.
Kerala usually receives monsoon showers by 1st June, but Mr Rathore said there was no need to paint a gloomy picture as the progress of the seasonal rainfall phenomenon was well with the forecast limits which have a model error of four days.
A unique feature of this year’s monsoon would be steady progress along the western coast bring copious rains to coastal Kerala and leaving the peninsular region relatively dry.
Current observations show central and northern Kerala receiving rainfall while Thiruvananthapuram getting little rains.
Weather watchers attribute the slight delay in the onset of monsoon to Typhoon Mawar which was active in a western Pacific Ocean off the Philippines and sucking away moisture and wind currents to power itself.
“The typhoon has moved northward towards Japan and will no longer affect the progress of the monsoon,” Mr Rathore said.
On the effect of El Nino conditions—warming of the Central Pacific—on the monsoon, he said it was too early to predict any adverse effect.
“At present, El Nino conditions are neutral,” he said indicating that it would not have much impact on the monsoon.
El Nino conditions could turn positive during August-September when the monsoon season draws to a close in India.
Scientists said sea surface temperatures in the central Pacific were expected to rise by 0.5 degrees Celsius to 0.7 degree Celsius.
However, they were quick to point out that there was no direct co-relation between El Nino and the monsoon.
“In 1997, El Nino was at its highest with central Pacific sea temperatures rising by four degrees but India had a normal monsoon,” Mr Rathore said.
In 1997, the sea surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean were favourable for the monsoon which negated the adverse impact of El Nino.
The IMD declares the onset of monsoon over Kerala when 50% of the 14 observation stations in the state and Lakshadweep islands report rainfall for 48 hours.
Monsoon rains are crucial for agriculture as only 40% of the cultivable area is under irrigation. The farm sector contributes about only 15% to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but it employs about 60% of India's population.
Mr Rathore said deviation of 3-4 days in arrival of monsoon rains would have no adverse impact on sowing of kharif crops.
“There is no concern for paddy sowing because seedlings are raised first in nursery through irrigation and then transplanted in the field much later,” he said.
There would be no impact on cotton and sugarcane crops as these long-duration crops are mostly cultivated in areas with irrigation facilities.
On the back of good monsoon in 2010 and 2011, the country harvested a record foodgrains production of 245 million tonnes and 252.56 million tonnes, respectively.