Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Tuesday inaugurated the “Bharatiya Mahila Bank” or Indian Women’s Bank, the country’s first women-oriented bank aimed at providing loans and financial services to women.
The bank, fully owned by the government, started with an initial funding of 10 billion rupees ($161 million) and an all-women board comprising eight members.
Finance Minister P. Chidambaram had announced setting up the bank in his budget speech in February, as part of government measures to generate employment opportunities and provide funding for women.
Many, including members of the opposition, welcomed the announcement at the time. But some commentators felt the move was populist and sought to attract female voters ahead of federal elections in May next year.
Sonia Gandhi, the president of India’s ruling Congress party, of which Mr. Chidambaram and Mr. Singh are members, has asserted that a dedicated women’s bank is aimed at improving the self-sufficiency of women.
“Only 26% women in the country today have bank accounts,” Mr. Chidambaram said at a press conference in Mumbai on Tuesday, adding that a women’s-only bank will help increase this statistic.
“Access to finance and banking not only helps empower women but also broadens the social base of development, thus fostering equitable growth. This is an area in which India lags far behind,” Prime Minister Mr. Singh said in his inaugural speech.
The bank, headquartered in New Delhi, will be headed by Usha Ananthasubramanian, a former executive director of Punjab National Bank, the country’s second largest state-run lender by assets. Tuesday was the launch of the inaugural branch in Mumbai.
Mr. Chidambaram said the bank is starting with seven branches and has a target to open 25 branches by March 2014. He expects the bank to open a branch in every state capital and eventually expand to smaller towns and villages, perhaps even overseas.
The bank’s priority will be women and it will design its products around them, he said.