Champions of Financial Inclusion

Monday, January 10, 2011

Telecom and Organized Retail as Business Correspondent: An analysis of BC Model

Increasing the outreach of financial services has been on the mind of Reserve Bank of India for several years. Serious efforts are being taken to ensure financial inclusion to the unbanked and the under-banked. In Jan 2006, RBI introduced the strategically low-cost business correspondent model which had specific guidelines on who are eligible for being hired as BCs by banks. Business Correspondent model is no doubt an innovative medium of achieving some significant results in the field of inclusion.

Business correspondents are agents who can be hired by banks to provide a subset of banking services in places where it is not commercially or physically viable to set up branches in the present condition. Due to low margins in the proposed structure, for banks as well as BC, a lot of revisions to eligibility criteria have been made over the years where technology in the form of ICT has played a lot of role in bending the minds of review committees to bring these changes.

Earlier, only NGOs, Microfinance Institutions set up under Society or Trust act, Societies registered under Mutually aided Co-operative Societies Acts or the co-operative Societies Acts of States; Section 25 companies and post offices. Later in April 2008, specific details like holding pattern in the Section 25 companies by profit making companies was appended.

It was also observed (Rangarajan Committee) that for achieving sufficient numbers in the financial inclusion meter, BCs have to be placed in many villages which will be almost impossible if locally settled retired Government servants like postmasters, school teachers, ex-servicemen etc are not deputed/hired as BCs. Further it was suggested that NBFCs may be allowed to act as BCs providing limited services like savings and remittance on behalf of bank.

BCs are required to play a role from creating awareness, to selling the product to being the point of service for those customers throughout shoulder the responsibility.  However looking forward, the question outstanding is whether organized service providers like telecoms a better option than hiring individual BCs. Choosing an organized retail and telecom  over hiring individual BCs has its upside and downside, which needs to be analyzed carefully before selecting any option. The major advantages of a using telecom sector and organized reatils as BCs are: 

  • Large and widespread network already setup
  • Ease of policy compliance with the hiring Bank
  • Established processes to easily monitor and evaluate and implement cash management system
  • Likely to continue as an agent for longer period than independent individuals

But there are certain disadvantages that need to be taken care of while hiring these organized retails
  • Adoption of Double Selling practice: because of thin margin, only if they buy their products, only will they provide banking service
  •  Information Security of Customers: The data can be used by the company for its own benefit
  • Volatility of the industry (telecom) can shut down operation of entire area/reason which can affect continuity of BC service
  • Less attention to business: since it is not the main business, they can tend to ignore the business opportunities handling double pressure

However, it is to be kept in mind that setting up a BC network not only requires conquering geographical challenges which the Telcos and organized retails have achieved, but a dedicated human resource that keeps financial inclusion as priority. Additional backend, training et al would mean additional initial and continuous investments that these new entrants have to make to play BC to any bank or Govt.

It is important to shield the burning candle from winds outside, the risks for using telcos and organized retails needs to be carefully identified, their impact quantified and to put into place proper mitigation plans before they are hired as BCs.

-Chitra Nayak