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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Banking on a Brighter Future

Aiko Doden

Jan. 13, 2016

India's super-charged economy is bringing unprecedented wealth to the country's 1.2 billion people. But it's also causing growing pains, including greater inequality.

In the northwestern state of the Rajasthan, the economy grew 11% in 2014. Most people continue to live in villages that are still struggling with poverty and many of the most affected are women.

Rural villages in Rajasthan are some of the least developed in the country. Recently, women have been visiting the village office to learn how to use a bank account. In the past, state allowances, pensions and grants were sent by mail. With a bank account, such benefits are transferred electronically.

In 2014, the state government introduced a scheme called "Bhamashah." It allows women from poor families to receive money directly. "Withdrawing money myself is very convenient," says one of the women who joined the program. "I'll use it for my eye treatment and glasses. And I want to buy clothes for my family."

India has long been a male-dominated society. In recent years, there's been a push to improve the status of women, following a series of violent incidents that shocked the country.

In the rural villages of Rajasthan, women are still responsible for much of the housework and have little say in financial decisions. One man says "if women get their hands on money, they'll do selfish things." Another says "men have men's roles, and women have theirs."

The idea that only men can inherit family names and fortunes remains deep-rooted, particularly in rural areas. The new scheme is designed to encourage women to open bank accounts with the goal of empowering women to manage their household finances.

One of the people benefiting from the program is Shanti Devi. She hopes her new bank account will bring new possibilities. Like other women in the program, Shanti receives a bank card registered under her name. Her photo is printed on the card and only she can use it. Verification is done with fingerprints, as some of the women are illiterate.

Shanti got married when she was 13. She lost her husband in an accident 13 years ago, and had to raise their two sons on her own. "My life has been tough," she says. "I've only had hardships."

Shanti never went to school, and was never taught how to read and write. After her husband died she worked odd jobs and struggled to make ends meet. "I was not able to send my sons to a good school," she says. "I didn't have money and couldn't afford it."

When families living below the poverty line open a bank account through the Bhamahsha scheme, they get a state allowance of about $30. That's about the same as they would normally make in a month.

Shanti wants to use the allowance to open a cosmetics and accessories shop. The village will lend her a space for free. "This is a prime location," Shanti says while looking over a location in the village center. "I think a lot of women will shop at my store and it will be successful."

Shanti took a trip to a neighboring village with her son and his wife. They headed to a similar shop that sells cosmetics and other supplies.

Shanti researched the merchandise and prices for her own shop, which will be the first of its kind in her village. Shanti says she wants to use the money she saves from her business to make sure her grandchildren go to good schools. "I'm getting old," she says. "I want my grandchildren to do what my sons couldn't do. I want them to get an education so they can do what they want in life."

The amounts she hopes to save may be small at first. But for women like Shanti, it's not just about the money. Their aspirations also grow with each deposit.

Rajasthan's Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje says she wants to see all 13 million families living in the state to be covered by the scheme by March. "The moment when woman has a bank account, when she's educated, and she starts to think differently, a lot of things change," she says. "When that happens to the woman of the state, it makes a difference to a whole society around them, and I believe that's the changes that are taking place. We're on the transitional phase."

NHK senior commentator Aiko Doden joined Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Beppu: I understand that Rajasthan has a vibrant economy that's growing faster than India as a whole. But am I right to say that the gap between rich and poor is quite stark?

Doden: Yes, as in other parts of India, economic disparity is an issue that Rajasthan also has to overcome. Out of a population of 73 million, approximately one in seven people live on less than $1.25 a day. The literacy rate for women stands at 52%, while for men it's 80%. According to a UN report, 80% of women in India do not have bank accounts. When women have less education and limited access to financial services, it becomes harder for them to escape poverty. That's why the State government decided to launch this scheme ahead of the national government.

Shibuya: What changes has the scheme brought about, and what challenges still lie ahead?

Doden: So far, 10 million households have been registered and over 8.8 billion rupees worth of transactions, equivalent to about $130 million, have taken place. Bank accounts alone cannot solve all of the problems overnight. But it can help women start planning for their future. It may take years, but that can have a transformative impact, influencing the norms and mindset that define India today. And it is also about financial inclusion, and the people's right to register. India being an information technology powerhouse, the government aims to keep track of trends in demography and house hold spending, and to implement policies based on that big data. It would only make sense to formulate social security policies if you have an accurate understanding of who the beneficiary is. We tend to be dazzled by the speed of India's growth, but this is a challenge for a country with a population of 1.2 billion.