Lakhimi Baruah started the ‘Konoklota Mahila Urban Cooperative Bank’ in 1998 in Jorhat, Assam, to make women from underprivileged backgrounds financially independent and secure. Baruah started her journey way back in 1983. She started a Mahila Samiti in Dakshin Sarbaibandha area of Jorhat district. She worked closely with economically backward women and realized that although the women were making money, they did not have any saving habits. This was mostly because they were illiterate and did not want the hassles of paperwork but Baruah wanted to change all that.
When and why did you decide to start Konoklota Mahila Urban Cooperative Bank?
The thought of starting the bank came to my mind after I saw that there is a gap between the banking sector and women from rural areas who want to work and become financially independent. I did some research on the banking sector and came to know about co-operative banking. It was in 1990 that the initiative was taken. Back then, people were hardly aware of co-operative banking system and saving. I faced a lot of problems initially as the co-operative sector was not very developed back then in Assam. Also, sugar mills and textile mills were going through a bad phase. So, people used to stay away from co-operatives. They spent their income on needless things without caring about proper saving and financial planning.
Therefore, I thought of enabling people with a system to save their hard-earned money. In 1995, we started a lot of Self Help Groups and our bank was not approved till then by the RBI. We used to go to the nationalized banks to open accounts for the SHGs. But the processing and paperwork involved was tiring. Then, we decided that we needed the co-operative bank as soon as possible. And finally in 1998, with a lot of effort, we could open the bank. Now we do all the processing very easily, without any headache.
Did you get support when you initially started the bank?
My husband was very supportive. It took me eight long years to get the bank fully set-up along with the RBI license which would not have been possible without his support. Also, my family members did support me a lot which was a big boost. My children have also been very supportive.
An organisation named ‘Dakshin Sarbaibandha Mahila Samaj’ also helped me in setting up the infrastructure. All the women of the organisation have helped me in all my activities. Doctor Tultul Bora also helped me a lot, all throughout my journey.
I also received criticism. One of my friends told me to open an NGO instead, commenting that there is a lot of money in it. An economics professor had once said, ‘Lakhimi Baruah, there is no sign inside banks saying “No Entry for women”. So why take up such an initiative? Why are you making a bank women-centric?’ But my aim was different.
What is the strength of your organisation? How hard was it to get RBI license?
Presently, there are four branches of our bank. One in Sivasagar, two in Jorhat, one in Mariani, and we are planning to open one more branch in Golaghat district. We have 21 employees across the branches, seven agents, 77 co-coordinators for loan purpose. We have 35,000 customers in total, more than 12,000 shareholders.
There are several requirements that need to be fulfilled to get a license from the Reserve Bank. We need a certain amount of capital to get the membership. Also, the population of the region is looked into. As Jorhat was a C-category city then, we had several relaxations including women’s relaxation. Even after the relaxation, we had to invest INR 8,34,000 and the capital had to be collected from shareholders, which was obviously a tough job.
Since your Bank aims at empowering women, can you share some success stories?
When we organise general meetings, we mostly come across many people who thank us. We have provided loans to around 10,000 women for various purposes. I recently went to our branch in Unnyan Bazaar (Jorhat) for a visit. Once I reached, a lady walked up to me. I didn’t remember who she was exactly but I knew I had met her earlier. She introduced herself as Bimola, an attendant in Jorhat Don Bosco School. She said that her youngest son is graduating from Jorhat Engineering College soon. She told me that she could bear all her son’s education expenses with the loan she had taken from the bank. She repaid the whole amount and her son even got a job as part of campus placement. Another story is of a lady who runs a small cattle shop in Jorhat’s Chowk Bazaar. She took a loan for her daughter’s education who now works for State Bank of India. When our bank serve such purposes, we feel proud. There are numerous stories like that.
How did you feel on being presented the Nari Shakti Purashkar by the President of India?
In Assam, this is the only bank initiated solely by women. In case of the entire Northeast, there is another bank in Manipur called Manipur Women’s Bank. Their functioning is bit different than us. The President’s award was specifically provided for the way we function. We were monitored by agencies. I was totally unaware of the nomination. When we received the letter, we were overwhelmed with joy. The Nari Shakti Purashkar has given a boost to all of us. We are now known all over the State.
What are your future plans for the bank? Any plans for expansion?
We have plans for expansion in the future. I receive phone calls often from places like Silchar, Cachar, Tezpur, etc. They ask if we have any branches in those districts. Women from different parts of the State ask us to open a branch in their respective regions. But the hurdle for us is that we are not allowed to do so by the State government. It is not so easy to do so. There are many conditions to be fulfilled. We can fulfil all but one, which is still a burden for us. The requirement is INR 100 crore deposits in our bank from shareholders according to RBI guidelines. Only then, we can have branches State-wide. The customers of our cooperative bank are mostly people from low income groups. So, how can we get 100 crore deposits? We have urged the State government to open their accounts in our bank which might be helpful in increasing our capital but they often go to nationalized banks.