Keynote Address: Inclusive Banking and Empowerment of Women in Rural Areas

This is the transcript of my keynote address at Cauvery College, Virajpet, Kodagu on 22nd January 2016. For those of you who think it is tl; dr in internet speak, here are the highlights:

  1. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap survey of 2015 finds that women are 10 years behind men in wage equality. It will take 118 years to close this gap.
  2. A nation’s GDP goes up when women are economically empowered: Examples, from individuals and organisations like Kudumbashree and Equitas.
  3. It is not enough to have policies and practices for financial empowerment; we need to create support ecosystems for sustained change. How about creating a national training programme for financial literacy for women entrepreneurs, regardless of social status?
  4. Most critical however, we must build self-belief and self-assurance in women, that equality is their right and not a privilege.


Good morning and thank you for inviting me to speak today. I have spent my career in the relatively new field of innovation. After 20 years, it culminated in a best selling award-winning book called orbit-shifting innovation. While most people encouraged me to ride that success, I quit my job without a safety net instead, to start my own firm Anarva, which means unlimited in Sanskrit. So I stand before you as a fledgling entrepreneur. My company works in the area of strategy and innovation where we create breakthrough ideas and opportunities for new futures, especially in uncertain times. 21st century solutions for 21st century problems. The topic today is very interesting and relevant- Inclusive banking and empowerment of women in rural India- apt for our times. And certainly something I’ve had some experience in, over the last year.

118 years to attain equality: Not in your or my lifetime! 

The World Economic Forum released its annual gender gap survey last year, in November. “Despite an additional quarter of a billion women entering the global workforce since 2006, wage inequality persists, with women only now earning what men did a decade ago”. Which means while men are living in 2016, women some how have the capability of time travel and are living in wage conditions of 2006! Further, the WEF says, it will take 118 years to close this gap completely. Imagine this- how many of us, living in this time and age will even be able to see economic equality in our lifetimes? In the gender gap study of 145 nations, India remains extremely low at 108. Other BRIC countries such Brazil at 75, Russia at 85 and China at 91 are way above us.

We don’t necessarily need to refer to statistics to understand the reality of our situation. Just looking around and talking to women at work today, in all walks of life will paint the reality for us. How many working mothers finish their day jobs and then go on to become unpaid workers at home, like millions of at-home mothers, as well? Cooking and cleaning don’t happen on their own! I believe if we had some way to calculate the amount to be paid to mothers for the work they do at home, then the whole world would be bankrupt and only mothers would be rich. Which might not be a bad idea given the current state of the world.

A Good Husband


Here’s an interesting definition. In urban slums, a good husband is defined as someone who doesn’t take money from his wife. Consider this: he is free to spend his money as he wishes, but contributes zero to the household expenses, all of which is her responsibility and yet he is a good husband. Because a bad husband spends his money and then takes his wife’s money as well, for himself. Besides also beating her a few times. Unfortunately, the issue isn’t this particular situation. The issue is, our mindset of, “we are like this only”, makes the pace of change all that more difficult, even when research has clearly proved that gender equality will actually raise the GDP of a nation and the profits of any organization involved in building the economic freedom of women.

Binu gets a bank account

Rather than look for problem areas, lets try and understand where people have made a difference. Because they are the torchbearers of what the future of women’s equality can be like. I was talking to a friend, Gangapriya who told me, and there are hundreds of stories like this, of her servant maid Binu, from Darjeeling, who’s been working, along with her husband, in Ganagpriya’s house for 20 years. They have a daughter who is now in class 12. Originally, Binu’s salary would be paid directly to her husband, and it was his to do with as he wished. Binu had no say in how the money was spent or saved. A few years ago Gangapriya encouraged Binu to open her own bank account. What started as a small savings every month has snowballed into a woman being in charge of her financial destiny. From recurring deposits maturing to fixed deposits, Binu is now financially savvy. The other day, she apparently returned giggling from the bank, because her savings have reached a size where she must now have a pan card and pay taxes. She doesn’t know the implications yet, but she felt so proud to be so important that the government wants to give her a pan card. Already she has a debit card that her daughter uses online for purchases. Which parent doesn’t have this problem? For me, at an individual level, this is the story of self-assurance, but critical to bear in mind, that at a national level, it is also a story of collective contributions to national savings and the GDP.

Kudumbashree: Thrift first and credit later 

Moving from the individual to the organization, the other great story is one of Kudumbashree in Kerala, because it is a story of a positive poverty alleviation programme that succeeded. It was different from conventional poverty alleviation programmes. The first difference was in terms of who was targeted: the poorest of the poor. Rather than income deprivation, Kudambashree identified ‘at risk families’ on a nine point index with factors like: substandard housing, no access to sanitary latrines, no access to safe drinking water, children below five years of age etc. Second, rather than hand out charity or government subsidies, families were formed into Neighbourhood Help Groups, (NHG’s) where they were encouraged to talk about their problems and issues and also save: sometimes amounts as low as Rs. 2. So this was about building self-reliance, through thrift first and credit later. The Impact: 1.5 lakh NHG’s Collected 770 crores, with bank loans of close to 2000 crores. Other basic necessities were also addressed, like capability building, community health, education and housing. But what is most interesting is the ripple effect years later, in terms of empowerment of women. In 2010, 11,773 women contested in the local village elections and 5485 won. This initiative is truly remarkable because it was run by 50 people in an institution we usually tend to distrust the most: the government. There were no fancy consultants or outside experts telling them how to make it happen. So if the Government can transform the lives of the poorest of the poor, then it just shows that when you put the purpose in the centre, empowerment of women, even the most difficult of changes can be made a reality.

Equitas: Clients at the centre of their business

Equitas is a more recent example of a microfinance organization that has succeeded in making a difference to its clients. Rather than focus on the quantity of loans it disburses and therefore the size of the business it can become, Equitas’ mission is to improve the quality of the life of its clients as follows: Increase member’s income, reduce their expenses, and facilitate long-term investments. And because of this mission they offer a 360-degree support ecosystem to their clients with free health care, skill development and placement services in areas like tailoring, processed food etc. They also offer education at an affordable cost, having opened 7 schools, with 98000 scholarships and 2500 students, so far. Equitas has also worked on food security for its clients through exclusive wholesale shops called Equitas Dhanya Kosha. It is indeed a proud moment for these women when they can walk into an Equitas grocery store, which is like having an exclusive ‘club membership’. In all of this, a story that touched me was one of Kavita, a woman who was blinded when her husband threw acid on her face. She was living in helpless conditions until she came across Equitas. Conventional finance companies don’t usually lend to visually impaired people because of possible convoluted legal issues in the event of a defaulting customer. And yet, today Kavita, runs her own successful business in retail trade, made possible because one micro finance institution had the courage to step in where no one has before. No surprise then, that Equitas has won awards and accolades for the work done in this area.

What women entrepreneurs need: A 360 degree support system

The key point to register here is that what Kudumbashree and Equitas have done is not only because it is good to do but as much because economic empowerment of women results in good business. Equitas recently had an IPO, and it is one of the world’s fastest growing micro-finance institutions. What they have shown us is that beyond throwing money at the problem, it is also about creating committed support ecosystems for success. This is something that we must recognize; there is no dearth of good initiatives. Most of them fail however, because while the idea is good on paper, it has not created the surrounding ecosystem to help women succeed. For example, once Binu had the bank account, managing and growing her finances became easy. But getting Binu to open her bank account in the first place, was a very difficult problem to solve. Gangapriya went from bank to bank to bank, but with all the requirements of Know Your Customer (KYC) documents, with identity proof etc. it became near impossible a task. The only reason the account was finally opened was because of Gangapriya’s persistence.  On her personal assurance a bank where she herself had been a customer for many years, eventually consented. How many Binus are there in this country? And how many Gangapriyas do we need to find?

This doesn’t happen to just illiterate, poor people, by the way. As an entrepreneur I can tell you of the difficulties I’ve had in my own business banking literacy. In figuring out that service tax has to be paid within a month, and the severe consequences if it is not done, or in having to wait for a corporate credit card till my organization is at least one year old, I’ve struggled through this maze of bureaucracy to run the financial side of my organization. So policy and initiatives is all very well, but how does it then translate into real benefits on the ground, as Equitas and Kudumbashree made happen for their customers? For example, the PM has recently announced the MUDRA loan for small businesses. Large national banks even tout it on their websites. But recently another entrepreneur friend, spent time and energy going from bank to bank, to raise funding for her imp-ex business. When she talked to bankers of the MUDRA loan, they said they were not aware, even though it was well described on their website! She finally discovered that the person to approach doesn’t sit at the bank branch but at the nodal office. Only they have an understanding of these loans. But in order to get to the right person, she has spent 6 months of her time running around.

So here’s a suggestion for UGC (The University Grants Commission) and the people in this room. Since you are in the educational field, I think a concrete call to action will help. Is it possible to create the educational pathway to support entrepreneurial women? A knowledge and training programme on funding and financial savvy for entrepreneurs? Imagine if we did it on a national level, and helped build this support ecosystem for women entrepreneurs, no matter what their social status, then perhaps, we will not have to wait 118 years for economic gender equality.

Nangeli ends the breast tax


In 19th century Travancore, the upper class devised a cruel way to subjugate women of the dalit Avarna class by levying a tax on their breasts, which varied, depending on size. The Avarna ladies were allowed to cover their breasts only if they paid the tax. Nangeli a beautiful 35-year-old woman of the Ezhava community, decided she had had enough. She wanted to stop this bestial practice. Usually, when the tax collector arrived, he was served the tax on a plantain leaf. This time, as he was waiting, Nangeli emerged with her breasts cut off. Bleeding heavily from her chest, she placed them before the horrified tax collector, as a physical representation of the breast tax. As she breathed her last later in the day, her devoted husband entered her funeral pyre, one of the first recorded instances of a man committing sati*. The Tranvancore raja abolished the barbaric tax after this incident. This gory story illustrates in a very physical form the subjugation that an Indian woman goes through. Which is why while times have changed, our challenges have not. While we build new economic business models like small banks, microfinance etc., we first need to teach our daughters self-reliance and self-belief. The reason I stand before you today, as a successful professional is because of my parents. As the second of two daughters born in the 70’s my parents chose not to pursue the very deep rooted Indian quest for a son, by having a third child. This instilled a great self-belief in my sister and me that we are indeed equal and can do anything we want to in order to succeed. So, if there is anything positive in Nangeli’s story, it is this: that we can, no matter what the odds, overcome. She died, because we don’t have to. And when the women of India rise, even death can’t stop their victory! Jai Hind!

*Sati: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sati_(practice)

Tell us what you think! What are your experiences in creating gender equality at work or in your community? Any ideas or examples on how to reduce the 118 year gap? 

Connect with us on @thinkanarva on twitter https://twitter.com/ThinkAnarva or on our FaceBook page. https://www.facebook.com/thinkanarva/?ref=aymt_homepage_panel


Examples came from conversations with:

  1. Gangapriya Chakraverti, Chennai
  2. Gautam Rao, Chennai
  3. John Alex, Head, Social Initiatives, Equitas, Chennai

Internet Links:

  1. World Economic Forum, Gender Gap Survey: http://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/11/women-only-earn-what-men-did-a-decade-ago/
  2. The Breast Tax: http://homegrown.co.in/unsung-heroes-why-nangeli-a-19th-century-dalit-womans-sacrifice-is-important-even-today/
  3. Image Courtesy: http://ajaysekher.net/2013/03/28/paintings-critiques-culture-history-subversive-visual-narratives-chitrakaran-murali/


  1. Kudumbashree example from: Orbit-Shifting Innovation: The Dynamics of Ideas that Create History: By Rajiv Narang and Devika Devaiah  http://www.amazon.in/Orbit-Shifting-Innovation-Rajiv-Narang/dp/818400320X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1454943529&sr=8-1&keywords=orbit+shifting+innovation