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The Concept Of Microfinance

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Published: Thu, 20 Apr 2017

In the recent years, most of the countries across the globe are in a sweeping mood to promote microfinance not only as a positive rural development intervention but also as a rural development panacea. As a result, the developmental economists in underdeveloped and developing economies have increasingly become enthusiastic in promotion and development of microfinance as one of the rural development initiatives. The purpose of such an initiative is to promote the welfare of the society as a whole by targeting the most talked developmental objectives of poverty alleviation (Shah,2008) and balanced regional development (Barman et al. , 2009).

Micro-finance today though has become one of the most debated topics but it is a much confused buzzword among the bankers and the policy makers. Micro-finance is more than just a word as it has much wider meaning and implications. It is an instrument and a tool that has power to collectively address poverty, empower the socially poor, address gender issues and thereby strengthen the society as a whole. Micro-finance has therefore emerged as a powerful mechanism which ensures the social and economic empowerment of poor (Sriram, 2004).

Concept of Microfinance

Microfinance, according to McGuire and Conroy (2000), is “the provision of financial services, primarily savings and credit, to poor households that do not have access to formal financial institutions.” The Task Force on Supportive Policy and Regulatory Framework for Microfinance set up by NABARD in November 1998 defined microfinance as “the provision of thrift, credit and other financial services and products of very small amounts to the poor in rural, semi urban or urban areas, for enabling them to raise their income levels and improve living standards” (Sharma, 2001; Reddy, 2005, Reji, 2009). These financial services, according to Satish (2005) and Dasgupta (2006), generally include deposits, loans, payment services, money transfers, and insurance to poor and low income households and their microenterprises. However, the expression microfinance according to Torre and Vento (2006) denotes offering the financial services to “Zero or low income beneficiaries”.

Wanchoo (2007) defines microfinance as “any activity that includes the provision of financial services such as credit, savings, and insurance to low income individuals who either fall below the nationally defined poverty line or fall just above that, with the goal of creating social value”. The creation of social value means making efforts in direction of eradication of poverty, improving livelihood opportunities for the poor through the provision of capital for micro-enterprise, promotion of savings for poor so that current problems and future risks can be minimized. However, how much below or above the poverty line has not been defined anywhere in the literature so far.

Arabi (2009) and Satish (2005) defines microfinance as “small scale financial services primarily credit and deposits that are provided to people who farm, fish or herd” and adds that it “operates small or microenterprises both in urban and rural areas”. According to Dinesha and Jayasheela (2009), these financial services are provided by financial institutions to the poor to meet their normal financial needs life cycle, economic opportunity and emergency. In the words of Dhandapani (2009) microfinance means extension of small loans to the poor, especially women to start business, invest in self employment works with the aim to increase their income and standard of living. As per the definition of Nagayya and Rao (2009), microfinance refers to entire range of financial and non-financial services including skill upgradation and entrepreneurial development of poor.

Sehrawat etal. (2011) however, defines microfinance as “a financial service provided by financial institutions to the poor which may include savings, credit, insurance, leasing, money transfer, equity transaction, etc. to meet their normal financial needs like life cycle, economic opportunity and emergency.

In short, it can be said that the concept of microfinance involves ‘Banking for the poor and Banking with the poor’. Such banking initiatives open doors of finance for destitute and underprivileged people who otherwise do not have access to finance from formal financial sources due to lack of collateral security (Nagayya and Rao, 2009; Barman et al. 2009). Microfinance targets the poorest segment of clients. They are self-employed and household-based entrepreneurs. Their diverse “micro-enterprise” includes small retail shops, street vending, artisanal manufacture, etc.

Components of Microfinance (Microfinance vs Microcredit)

The term `microfinance’ and `microcredit’ are often used interchangeably but in reality there is the difference between the two. Microcredit is the extension of small loans to entrepreneurs too poor to qualify for traditional bank loans. Microfinance is a broader concept encompassing not only the extension of credit to the poor, but also the provision of other financial services like savings, cash withdrawals and insurance (Dasgupta, 2006; Nagayya and Rao, 2009). Microcredit is the component of microfinance. There are four components of microfinance:

Microcredit: It is a small amount of money lent to a client by a bank or other institution. Microcredit can be offered, often without collateral, to an individual or through group lending. The purpose of such a loan is to provide credit to those who require it.

Microsavings: These are small sums of money that allow poor people to save small amounts of money for future use. These saving accounts are often without minimum balance requirements. It helps low households to save in order to meet unexpected expenses and plan for future investments. These are the means of collateral to microcredit (Sinha, 2005).

Microinsurance: It is an economic instrument characterised by low premium designed to service low income people not served by typical social or commercial insurance schemes and helps in mitigating risks affecting property and health (Khandelwal A.K., 2007).

Remittances: These are transfers of funds from people in one place to people in another, usually across borders to family and friends (Khandelwal A.K., 2007).

The Rise of Microfinance Movement / the Beginnings of Microfinance

The concept of Microfinance is not new as it has had its prevalence in the long past. The imprints of microfinance can be traced back to Indonesia which points towards the formation of Indonesian People’s Credit Banks which were set up in 1895 and which had close to 9000 units. Later, “efforts were made to bring about revolution in Pakistan (now Bangladesh) by Akhtar Hameed Khan in 1959 in form of formation of Academy for Rural Development” (Khandelwal, 2007).

In the late 1970s, the economists round the world recognised that poor lack access to financial services (McGuire and Conroy, 2000; Tiwari and Fahad,1997 ; Barman et al., 2009). From this developed a new emphasis on establishing better financial systems which could direct credit to poor clients on a more sustainable basis than had been possible under previous “discredited schemes of directed credit” (McGuire and Conroy, 2000).

At that time, Professor Muhammad Yunus popularised the concept of microloans as he believed that “peace prevails only when hunger is quelled” (Shetty and Veershekharappa, 2009). He started Grammeen Bank in 1976 in the outskirts of Chittagong University campus in the village of Jobra, Bangladesh with only a meagre amount of $27 as loan and made it a target to grant loans to the poorest of the poor. He felt concerned for the miserable landless women who were labouring for other people. He reasoned that if these women could work for themselves instead of working for others, they could retain much of the surplus generated by their labours, currently enjoyed by others. He started giving loans to even beggars. He was also of the view that if beggars can go to houses for getting money, they can go to houses to sell a product also.

The Grameen Bank lending procedures are simple and effective. The first and foremost step in receipt of credit is the formation of the group of five members that gather once a week for loan repayment (Dasgupta, 2001). Loans are initially made to two individuals in the group, who are then under pressure from the rest of the members to repay in good time. The borrower has to repay the loan in weekly instalments spread over a year. The functioning of Grameen Bank also involves enchanting of “16 Decisions” at the start of their weekly session. These decisions include production of fruits and vegetables in kitchen gardens, investment for improvement of housing and education for children, use of latrines and safe drinking water for better health, rejection of dowry in marriages etc. Although observance of these decisions is not mandatory, in actual practice it has become a requirement for receiving a loan (Tiwari and Fahad, 1997).

In order to promote thrift habit, it is compulsory for every member to save one Taka per week which is accumulated in the Group Fund. This account is managed by the group. The amount in the Fund is deposited with Grameen Bank and earns interest. A member can borrow from this fund for consumption, sickness, social ceremony or even for investment (if allowed by all group members). In case of default in repayment or failure to attend meetings, the defaulters may be charged with a fine or may be expelled. The members are free to leave the group before the loan is fully repaid; however, the responsibility to pay the balance falls on the remaining group members.

Some of the key strategies adopted by the Grameen Bank are listed below:

I) There is an exclusive focus on the poorest of the poor. This is exclusivity ensured by:

establishing clearly the eligibility criteria for selection of targeted clientele and adopting practical measures to screen out those who do not meet them.

in delivering credit, priority has been increasingly assigned to women.

the delivery system is geared to meet the diverse socio-economic development needs of the poor.

2) Borrowers are organized into small homogeneous groups. Such characteristics facilitate group solidarity as well as participatory interaction. Organizing the primary groups of five members and federating them into centers. The Centers are functionally linked to the Grameen Bank, whose field workers have to attend Centre meetings every week.

3) Special loan conditions which are particularly suitable for the poor. These include:

a) very small amounts of loans given without any collateral

b) loans repayable in weekly instalments spread over a year

c) eligibility for a subsequent loan depends upon repayment of first loan

d) individual, self-chosen, quick income-generating activities which employ the skills that harrowers already posses.

e) close supervision of credit by the group

f) stress on collective borrower responsibility or peer pressure

g) special safeguards through compulsory and voluntary savings to minimize the risks that the poor confront.

h) Undertaking of social development agenda addressing basic needs of the clientele. This is reflected in the “sixteen decisions” adopted by Grameen borrowers.

Thus, the lending operations of Grameeen Bank include the use of group guarantees, inculcating compulsory savings habit and transparency of credit transactions (Mcguire and Conroy, 2000). A still more interesting feature is the ingenious manner of grant of credit without any “collateral security”. The availability of lending outlets near the clients, simple application procedures, and quick disbursement of loans are the special techniques to ensure good repayment rates (Tiwari and Fahad,1997 ).

“The Grameen Bank is now lending loan size of $ 800 million a year with an average loan size of almost $130, the bank has 7 million borrowers, 97 percent of them are women and an unmatched repayment rate of 98 percent”(Tiwari and Fahad,1997 ; Singh and Kumar,2008). The microloans not only helped the poor in getting finance in Bangladesh and facilitated the lives of millions of poor but also earned Muhammad Yunus a Nobel Prize in the year 2006.

Evolution of microfinance in India

The Grameen Bank model of microfinance based on “joint liability” of members has received wide international appeal and popularity in numerous emerging economies like India. In fact the developing economies have even tried to replicate these models for developing small scale business and reducing poverty levels (Jha, 2002; Idolor and Imhanlahimi, 2011). The evolution of Indian MF can be broadly divided into four distinct phases:

Phase 1: The Cooperative Movement (1900-1960)

During this phase, there was dominance of two sources of credit viz. institutional sources and non-institutional sources. The non institutional sources catered to 93 percent of credit requirement in the year 1951-52 and institutional sources accounted to 7 percent of total credit requirements pertaining to that year. The preponderance of informal sources of credit was due to provision of loans for both productive and non productive purposes as well as for short term and long term purposes and simple procedures of lending adopted. But they involved several malpractices like charging high rates of interest, denial of repayment, misappropriation of collaterals, etc.

At that time, government considered cooperatives as an instrument of economic development of disadvantaged masses. The credit cooperatives were vehicles to extend subsidized credit to poor under government sponsorship. They were characterized as non exploitative, voluntary membership and decentralized decision making. The Primary Agricultural societies (PACS) provide mainly short term and medium term loans and Land Development Banks provide long term loans as a part of cooperative movement.

Phase 2: Subsidized Social Banking (1960s – 1990)

It was observed that cooperatives could not do much as was expected of them. With failure of cooperatives, All India Rural Credit Survey Committee in 1969 emphasized the adoption of “Multiagency Approach to Institutional Credit” which assigned an important role to the commercial banks in addition to cooperatives. Even Indian planners in fifth five year plan (1974-79), emphasised “Garibi Hatao” (Removal of poverty) and the “growth with social justice”. It was due to this approach that in 1969, 14 leading banks were nationalized and later on five regional rural banks were set up for the purpose on October 2, 1975 at Moradabad and Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, Bhiwani in Haryana ,Jaipur in Rajasthan and Malda in West Bengal. Hence, as a result of Multiagency approach and other planning initiatives, Government focused on measures such as nationalization of Banks (Shetty and Veerashekharappa, 2009; Sriram, 2005), expansion of rural branch networks, establishment of Regional Rural Banks (RRBs) and the setting up of apex institutions such as the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) and the Small Scale Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI). The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) as the central bank of the country played a crucial role by giving overall direction for providing credit and financial support to national bank for its operations. Therefore, after the multiagency approach, the commercial banks and regional rural banks assumed a major role in providing both short term and long term funds for serving the poorest of poor.

Despite, the multiagency approach adopted, a very large number of the poorest of the poor continued to remain outside the fold of the formal banking system”(Reddy and Manak, 2005; Singh and Kumar, 2008; Nagayya and Rao, 2009; Shetty and Veershekharappa, 2009). While these steps led to reaching a large population, the period was characterized by large-scale misuse of credit, creating a negative perception about the credibility of micro borrowers among bankers, thus further hindering access to banking services for the low-income people. However the gap between demand and supply of financial services still prevailed due to shortcomings of institutional credit system as it provides funds only for productive purposes, requirement of collateral, massive paper work leading to inordinate delays. As a response to failure of formal financial system in reaching the poor and destitute masses, the micro finance through Self-help groups was innovated and institutionalized in the Indian scenario.

“While no definitive date has been determined for the actual conception and propagation of SHGs, the practice of small groups of rural and urban people banding together to form a savings and credit organization is well established in India. In the early stages, NGOs played a pivotal role in innovating the SHG model and in implementing the model to develop the process fully” (Reddy and Manak2005).

The first step towards Micro-finance intervention was establishment of Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), non formal organization owned by women of petty trade groups. It was established on the cooperative principle in 1974 in Gujarat. This initiative was undertaken for providing banking services to the poor women employed in unorganized sector of Ahmadabad. Shree Mahila Sahkari Bank was set up as urban cooperative bank. At national level, SHG movement involves NGOs helping in the formation of the groups.

During this time, the planners and policy makers were desperately searching for the viable ways of poverty alleviation. Around that time, the Government of India launched the Integrated Rural Development Program (IRDP), a large poverty alleviation credit program, with the purpose of providing credit to poor and under-privileged which involved provision of government subsidized credit through banks to the poor. But the IRDP was a “supply led” programme and the clients had no choice over the purpose and the amount. At this stage, it was realised that the poor really needed better access to these services and products, rather than cheap subsidized credit. That is when the experts started talking about microfinance, rather than microcredit.

Keeping in view the economic scenario of those days, a strong need was felt for alternative policies, procedures, savings and loan products, other complementary services, and new delivery mechanisms, which would fulfil the requirements of the poorest, especially of the women members of such households ( Barman et al. 2009; Shetty and Veerashekharappa, 2009). It was during this time, NABARD conducted a series of research studies independently and in association with MYRADA, a leading NGO from Southern India, which showed that a very large number of poor continued to remain outside the fold of the formal banking system (Reddy and Manak, 2005). Later on PRADAN in its Madurai projects started forming women SHG groups” (Satish, 2005).

During 1988-89, NABARD in association with Asia Pacific Rural and Agricultural Credit Association (APRACA) undertook a survey of 43 NGOs in 11 states in India, to study the functioning of microfinance SHGs and their collaboration possibilities with formal banking system (Satish P, 2005; Shetty and Veerashekharappa, 2009). Both these research projects laid the foundation stone for the initiation of a pilot project called the SHG linkage project (Satish P, 2005).

Phase 3: SHG-Bank Linkage Program (1990 – 2000)

The failure of subsidized social banking lead to delivery of credit with NABARD initiating the Self Help Group (SHG) Bank Linkage Programme in 1992 (SBLP), aiming to link informal women’s groups to formal banks. This was the first official attempt in linking informal groups with formal lending structures. “To initiate this project NABARD held extensive consultations with the RBI. This resulted the RBI issuing a policy circular in 1991 to all Commercial Banks to participate and extend finance to SHGs” (RBI, 1991). This was the first instance of mature SHGs that were directly financed by a commercial bank. “The informal thrift and credit groups of poor were recognized as bankable clients. Soon after, the RBI advised Commercial Banks to consider lending to SHGs as part of their rural credit operations thus creating SHG Bank Linkage” ( Reddy and Manak,2005).

The program has been extremely useful in increasing banking system outreach to unreached people. The programme has been extremely advantageous due to reduction of transaction cost due to less paper work and record keeping as group lending rather than individual lending is involved (Barman et al. 2009). The SHG bank linkage is a strong method of financial inclusion, providing unbanked rural clientele with access to formal financial services from the existing banking infrastructure. The major benefit by linking SHGs with the banks is that it helps in overcoming the problem of high transaction cost of banks as the responsibility of loan appraisal, follow up, recovery of loans are left to poor themselves. On the other side, SHGs gain by enjoying larger and cheaper sources (Varman, 2005).

Later, the planners in Ninth Five year plan (1997-2002) laid emphasis on “Growth with Social Justice and Equality”. The objective of Ninth plan as approved by the National Development Council explicitly states as follows:

“Promoting and developing participatory institutions like Panchayati Raj Institutions, cooperatives and Self -Help Groups”.

Hence, it was ninth five year plan that expressly laid down the objective of establishment of Self Help Groups in order to achieve the objective of Growth with Social Justice and Equality” as a part of microfinance initiative. Meanwhile, in 1999, the Government of India merged various credit programs together, refined them and launched a new programme called Swaranjayanti Gram Swarazagar Yojana (SGSY). The aim of SGSY was to continue to provide subsidized credit to the poor through the banking sector to generate self-employment through a Self-Help Group approach (Sriram, 2005).

Phase 4: Commercialization of Microfinance: The first decade of the new millennium

This stage involves greater participation of new microfinance institutions that started taking interest in the sector not only as part of their corporate social responsibility but also as a new business line. A number of institutions have been set up overtime which were required to meet the credit requirements of the new society and downtrodden.

At present Eleventh Five Year Plan (2007-2012) aims at “Towards More and Inclusive Growth”. The word inclusive growth means including and considering those who are somehow excluded from the benefits which they (poor) should avail. Microfinance is a step towards inclusive growth via inclusive finance which moves around serving the financial needs and non financial needs of poor in order to improve level of living of rural masses.

Demand and Supply forces of microfinance

1.5.1 The Demand for Microfinance

Traditionally the targets of microfinance meant “the poorest of the poor” and “the poor”. More, recently, microfinance focus is changing as it has now started serving people who, although, not living in poverty, have general difficulty in obtaining the credit (Torre and Vento, 2006). This is on account of socio-economic changes that have put forward potential new microfinance clients. In this way, modern microfinance is expanding its horizon from “poorest of poor” to “the victims of financial inclusion”. The phenomenon of financial inclusion has been defined in literature as “inability to access finance in an appropriate way” ( ). These victims of financial inclusion involve “disadvantaged individuals” who are unable to bear the cost and conditions of financial products offered. Another category of microfinance targets included the “marginalised people” who mainly comprise of small scale entrepreneurs who are running small businesses, self-employed workers and individuals who unable to obtain credit (Torre and Vento, 2006). In this category, women assume major significance. This is due to the more responsible nature of women who are more responsible in repayment of loan then men. The continuing involvement of “poorest of the poor”, “poor”, “disadvantaged” and “marginalised” people determines the greater complexity of the supply forces of Indian microfinance structure and thus, a more decisive move away from traditional pattern of credit.

1.5.2 The Supply of Microfinance

In any economy, most of the day-to-day activities require finance. Finance is required both for productive and non productive purposes. The productive purposes include requirement of fixed capital for commencement of business, funds for working capital requirement to meet day today activities, trade related emergencies, exploring investment opportunities etc. On the other hand, finance may be needed for non productive purposes, such as for celebration of marriages, births and deaths, for litigation. In order to satisfy in above needs there are two available sources of credit available to the poor: institutional sources or formal sources, non-institutional sources or informal sources.

Formal institutions are the registered entities subject to all relevant laws. These include commercial banks (including public and private sector banks), regional rural banks and cooperative banks. Recognizing the potential of micro finance to positively influence the development of the poor, the Reserve Bank, NABARD and Small Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI) have taken several initiatives over the years to give elevation to the micro finance movement in India. The Commercial Banks and Regional Rural Banks provide both short term and long term funds for serving the poorest of poor. The Primary Agricultural societies (PACS) provide mainly short term and medium term loans and Land Development Banks provide long term loans.

The National Bank of Agricultural and Rural Development (NABARD) is the apex institution at national level for agricultural credit and refinance assistance to the agencies mentioned above .The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) as the central bank of the country plays a crucial role by giving overall direction for providing credit and financial support to national bank for its operations. On the other hand, government owned societies like Rashtriya Mahila Kosh(RMK), Mutually Aided Cooperative Societies, private sector companies like specialized NBFCs are also involved in providing credit to the poor.

Informal institutions include self help groups, money lenders, traders, relatives, commission agents. They are providers of microfinance services on a voluntary basis and are not subject to any kind of regulation.

1.6 Self Help Groups Defined

A Self Help Group is a basic unit of micro-finance which comprises of 15 to 20 people having homogeneous social and economic background (Singh and Kumar, 2008) that voluntarily come together to save small amounts regularly and mutually agree to contribute a common fund. The aim of such formation is to meet present and emergency needs of the members on mutual help, solidarity and joint responsibility basis.

Self Help Groups (SHGs) are necessary to overcome exploitation, create confidence and creation of feeling of self worth for the economic and social self-reliance of rural poor, particularly among women who are mostly invisible in the social structure. The Self Help Groups are the basis for further action and change which help members become self reliant economically and socially. It also helps building of stable relationship for mutual trust between the promoting organization and the rural poor (Singh and Kumar, 2008).

Though loan repayment is a joint liability of the group but, in reality, individual liability is stressed upon (Singh and Kumar, 2008). Maintaining group reputation leads to the application of tremendous peer pressure. The group members use collective wisdom and peer pressure to ensure proper utilization of credit and its timely repayment thereof. In fact, peer pressure has been recognized as an effective substitute for collaterals (Barman et al. , 2009).


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