> Posted by Bindu Ananth, Chair, IFMR Trust

The following post was originally published on the IFMR Trust blog.

Yesterday, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) announced in-principle Payment Bank licenses for eleven applicants. To put things in perspective, there were two new bank licenses in the last decade. The successful applicants include the largest telcos, corporate houses, business correspondents, a depository, and a mobile wallet provider. The number of licenses and the diversity of the pool bode well for the scale and scope of what will be pursued by this new category of banks in the years to come.

While previous licensing rounds were always for “full-service” banks, this represents the first round of licensing for a differentiated banking design following on RBI’s Discussion Paper on Differentiated Banking and the recommendations of the Committee on Comprehensive Financial Services for Small Business and Low-Income Households. To recap, a Payment Bank can provide deposit and payment products but cannot lend. This very important design feature has an important implication from a regulatory perspective – Payment Bank promoters now cannot “cross the floor” in terms of raising public deposits and lending these out. Therefore, the implications of “fit and proper” are now quite different for this group of promoters. This perhaps explains why this round produced eleven licenses against two in the last decade. And at this stage of development of the Indian banking sector, these eleven new entrants could be just what the doctor ordered for innovations on savings and payment services while not adversely impacting the stability of the banking system. An IFMR Finance Foundation working paper reported that the asset portfolio of the average rural household in India is composed almost entirely of two physical assets—housing and jewellery with little to no financial assets of any type.

Also from a financial system design perspective, this is a timely acknowledgement that the credit and payments strategy must evolve differentially within the broader financial inclusion strategy. While progress on credit would necessarily have to be much more measured and prudent no matter what strategies are adopted given the inherent risks and customer protection concerns, there is an urgent need to make access to payments ubiquitous. Yesterday’s announcement is an important step forward in that direction.