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Holy or unholy?
In their quest to reach out to the unreached, banks have been striving hard to adopt various programmes, innovative or merely procedural.

After the initiative taken by NABARD, banks have approved the Self Help Group (SHG) Linkage programme for lending to the small borrowers. SHGs were able to bring together the formal banking structure and the rural poor for mutual benefit. Micro Finance Institutions (MFI), ostentatiously projected as the lenders as ‘micro credit,’ were facing competition from this linkage programmes. 

Of late, some banks are trying to forge alliances with MFIs by acquiring a couple of them. A large number of small borrowers may get the benefit of having access to micro credit from the big banks also. Hopefully, this could lead to a holy alliance of MFIs with banks, enlarging their accessibility.

However, one crucial issue that should be considered is the rate of interest charged by the MFIs. The track record of some successful MFIs is built on very high-interest rates charged by them. MFIs have been charging not less than 25 per cent per annum, according to some available data. And this rate of interest has the blessings of the Reserve Bank of India. MFIs are permitted to arrive at their lending rate by calculating a spread of 10 per cent margin.  Alternatively, they can charge at 2.75 times the average base rate of the five largest commercial banks, If the MFIs borrow funds at 15 per cent, adding their margin of 10 per cent, they can lend to the micro customers at 25 per cent. Thus the MFIs are legally allowed to charge this rate of interest, which is not different from that charged by moneylenders.

The dichotomy of interest rates

In classic Indian literature, the village moneylender is caricatured as a rapacious exploiter. Considering the insatiable demand for agricultural credit, the MFI perceive a lucrative business proposition in micro credit. The financial pundits, who were supporting the interest regimentation during the pre-financial sector reform period, now tacitly plead for the interest rates to be decided by market forces. The risk perception of MFIs’ rural lending is very high; their cost of funds and 

management fees are also high. Therefore, it is argued they should be allowed to charge a market-determined interest rate.

The consolation that the interest rate charged by MFI is slightly lower than that charged by moneylender is not a sufficient justification for charging rates much higher than that charged by banks. The rude manner in which some of them have stepped up their recovery efforts has created undue hardships to the debt-ridden poor borrowers.  It is reported that more than 60 per cent of the borrowers are now from urban areas. 

Need for introspection

The MFIs should voluntarily adopt a social audit to assess whether the interest rates charged by them are justified. While viability and reasonable profits are prerequisites for financial institutions, encashing on the misery of the helpless borrowers has to be avoided. If their operational cost is high, they need not venture into lending to the poor sections of the society. Five-star hotels cannot afford to charge less than Rs.100 for a cup of tea, because of their enormous operational cost. Rural India does not require five-star tea.  It would be satisfied to get tea from the road side tea stall at Rs.5, so long as it is available.

There have been many ‘angel investors,’ willing to fund the MFIs and receive in return very wealthy rewards for their investments. To repay these borrowings, the MFIs are compelled to squeeze their needy borrowers. This sort of unholy alliance should be avoided when the commercial banks enter into the business of micro finance.

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