Amidst the lockdown it is more than a busy day for Indurani Murmu of Hesopara village in Gola administrative block in Ramgarh district. When citizens across the country were staying indoors for fear of contracting the coronavirus, she, as a banking correspondent, has been going to the bank near Gola block office, which is nearly 15 km from her village.
When she has to go to the bank, she starts at 8 am. Depending on the work and time she spends waiting so as to avoid the sun, she reaches home in the evening, latest by 7 pm. It is somewhat easy for her when she has to visit the houses in her village and those nearby.
She visits houses of members of self-help groups and village organizations to complete work related to their bank accounts. Indurani Murmu and many banking correspondents and bank sakhis like her have been bridging the banking divide during the pandemic.
SHGs’ lockdown support
The National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) under the Ministry of Rural Development has supported the creation of self-help groups (SHGs) across the country. The 6.3 million SHGs spread across the states have helped bring women together, to empower them and the society.
Approximately 69 million women of the SHGs help each other by doing collective savings, promoting livelihood activities and giving emotional and financial support when needed. They also work with the panchayat at the village level on various development issues.
In the administration’s fight against COVID-19, these SHG women have come forward to offer support. The SHG women willingly help in whatever way they can, to keep rural India sustain itself during this coronavirus crisis.
From among the SHG members, some women are selected to handle banking related matters of their SHG. They are generally called as bank sakhis. The primary responsibilities of the bank sakhi are deposits, withdrawals and disbursement of funds among the SHG women on normal days.
They also do a timely audit of their SHGs for keeping transparency in their transactions. Sometimes the promoting organizations train the bank sakhis to handle works related to the bank. For the bank also it becomes easier as the bank sakhis are well aware of their work and coordinate with the villagers.
Apart from handling the accounts of SHGs, the bank sakhis also assist in registration and withdrawal of government-allocated funds for old age pension scheme, widow pension scheme and differently-abled pension scheme whose beneficiaries are most often unable to do so by themselves.
Rajjo Devi (73) lives with her daughter-in-law and grandson in Hesopara village. Her son, the only earning member of the family, lost his job as a laborer at a construction site in Ahmedabad and stopped sending money to the family during the lockdown. He was also not in a position to come back to the village.
“Because of Indurani I got Rs 1,500 cash from the old age pension scheme,” Rajjo Devi told VillageSquare.in. “I had been trying to get the amount since the lockdown started. Since Indurani got me the money, my family is able to manage without my son’s support.”
As a COVID-19 relief measure, the government announced a Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) of Rs 500 in the Jan Dhan accounts of women. This came as a boon for millions of rural poor of the country. There was an expected rush at the bank due to the release of this DBT fund.
Just like Indurani Murmu, 8,800 banking correspondents and 21,600 bank sakhis are working across the country during lockdown and supporting bank administration in managing customer rush at branches during DBT payment and ensuring social distancing.
These women have become the primary source of information dissemination in rural areas, about the financial provisions announced by the government. In some places, the bank sakhis get a nominal remuneration for their work, but most of them offer voluntary service.
In rural localities where operating regular branches are not feasible, the banks provide banking services through a bank kiosk center. The banking correspondents or bank sakhis manage the kiosks. The doorstep service that the sakhis provide at this juncture helps keep the distressed poor stay fed.
“In the initial days, when lockdown started, I was struggling to do my work as a bank sakhi since the villagers were apprehensive about trusting me with money-related work,” Indurani Murmu told VillageSquare.in.
Sometimes police personnel stopped her when she was on her way to the bank or while visiting beneficiaries. Later, when the lockdown guidelines were eased, the bank issued her an identity card so that she could continue her work without difficulties.
Indurani Murmu said that she always takes proper care with regard to hygiene and maintains physical distancing in public. The villagers see her as a woman working selflessly and fearlessly during this pandemic and hail her as a corona warrior.
Gyanesh Nanore is a researcher at VikasAnvesh Foundation. Views are personal.