Konoklata Mahila Bank, or Konoklata Women Urban Co-operative Bank, has changed the lives of hundreds of women in Assam’s Jorhat and its neighbouring districts.
Thanks to Lakhimi Baruah for initiating a bank exclusively for women. Baruah is one of the eight personalities from Assam who have been conferred the Padma Shri award on November 9.
As a student in her high school days and even later, Lakhimi Baruah was just another girl in the neighbourhood but her observation of the sufferings of the womenfolk has made all the difference.
In 1983, Baruah established Mahila Samiti (women’s committee) at Dakshin Sarbaibandha area of Jorhat district. As she started working with a large number of economically and educationally backward women, Baruah realized their financial insecurity. Even if the women were engaged in small income-generating works, they did not have a saving mechanism. Then the idea of opening a bank that would cater to the needs of these women came to her mind.
“Ever since my young days, I have witnessed that our women in the society were financially weaker. They didn’t have proper savings and they didn’t know the proceedings of obtaining loans from financial institutes basically banks. It was also difficult for the women as most of them were uneducated,” Baruah had told The News Mill during a conversation couple of years ago.
She even helped in forming self-help groups and approached banks for financial help but that too didn’t work out properly. Even during her association with the Central Co-operative Bank, she realized that the women customers couldn’t submit the documents properly.
“Then I was determined to start something exclusively for the women to be run by women. I knew it would not be easy but I desperately wanted to start that,” she added.
The Konoklata Mahila Co-operative Bank was finally started by 52 promoter members in 1990 with the tireless efforts of Lakhimi Baruah.
“The primary objective of the bank was to provide all commercial banking facilities including safe empowerment by providing opportunities for self-employment. Another objective is to popularize thrift and banking habits among women,” she said.
Under Baruah’s initiative, the bank was registered by Reserve Bank of India on May 22, 1998, as a financial institution. The general assembly of the bank appointed her as its managing director and she is still working from this post. As time passed by the bank expanded its activities by opening new branches. From its inception, the bank has not suffered any loss. Thank the leadership of Baruah. It has become one of the most trustworthy financial institutions for women, who are able to get loans at a low-interest rate.
Even rickshaw-pullers and daily wage earners are also benefited by bank’s schemes. About 300 women self-help groups have availed loans provided by the bank so far.
The struggle for Lakhimi Baruah
But the road was pretty difficult to start the bank to serve the women and to be run by women only.
“In the 1990s, that too in Assam…it was something improbable if not impossible. But I was determined. So, I personally wrote two letters to RBI’s Mumbai and Guwahati offices respectively seeking help in setting up the women-only bank. Thankfully, I received the replies of the two letters which asked me to go ahead with the new urban co-operative bank policy. I was pretty excited to get the reply letters which obviously motivated me,” Lakhimi Baruah recalled.
But that was just the beginning as they need to struggle eight long years to get it recognized in 1998.
“This period was very frustrating. Time and again our proposals were rejected after every six months and so. The kind of criteria they needed, we couldn’t meet. Many a time we broke down. People, in general, didn’t have the confidence in us,” she added.
After getting the registration, the next hurdle was to obtain the license for financial dealings. They were needed to have at least 1,000 members and with Rs 8 lakh.
“However, among many negatives, there were some positives which helped us to be where we are today. I remember some women, housewives, who came forward to buy up to 10 shares of Rs 100 each. It was a huge motivation for us at that time,” Baruah said.
Finally, in 1999, they could gather Rs 8.45 lakh capital and the number of total members went up to 1,420. The next year, RBI issued them the license for financial transactions.
First, they started with six employees who were selected through tests and on the basis of their qualifications.
Lakhimi Baruah gives credit to her late husband Prabhat Baruah for being a pillar of strength behind his efforts.
“Even the name was suggested by him and which we all liked. He told us that Konoklata sacrificed for the liberty of the country and we should fight for the financial liberty of the women in the society,” she reckoned.
According to her, around 70 per cent of women are illiterate and more than 80 percent are from a downtrodden section of the society who have taken loans or benefitted from the bank.
The bank was named after Konoklata Barua, a freedom fighter from Assam who was martyred at the age of 17. She is widely respected for her bravery.