The bank, a pioneering initiative announced in the Union Budget, was launched with a corpus of Rs 1,000 crore and will have seven branches in major cities to start with.
Coinciding with the 96th birthday of late Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inaugurated the first branch at a function here in the presence of UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, coalition leaders Sharad Pawar and Farooq Abdullah, besides Finance Minister P Chidambaram.
Singh said women lag behind men in areas such as entrepreneurial skills, employment, literacy and health.
"The setting up of the Bharatiya Mahila Bank is a small step towards economic empowerment of our women," he said.
"The sad reality is that women in India face discrimination and hardship at home, school, at their places of work and in public places. Women's social, economic and political empowerment remains a distant goal.
"We have gathered here to witness the beginning of a unique institution," Singh said, adding, "The bank will provide financial services predominantly to women and women self-help groups."
Chidambaram said the Bharatiya Mahila Bank will be a universal bank which will have unique products designed for women and devote special attention to the funding needs of over 60 lakh self-help groups.
The idea of an exclusive lender for women was mooted at the Jaipur Congress plenary last year.
Pointing out that women account for a paltry 7.3 per cent of total credit in the financial system, Congress President Sonia Gandhi hoped the new bank would emerge as a catalyst for gender justice and equality.
The bank has drawn on a majority of cadre from state-run lenders, with Usha Ananthasubramanian as the Chairperson and Managing Director. In another first, the Bharatiya Mahila Bank has an all-woman, eight-member board.
The board consists of a business graduate sarpanch from Rajasthan, Chhavi Rajawat, Dalit entrepreneur Kalpana Saroj, who turned around a tubes business, retired public banker Nupur Mitra, academic Pakiza Samad, private equity professional Renuka Ramnath, Godrej Group executive Director Tania Dubash and Priya Kumar, a government nominee.
The bank, headquartered in New Delhi, started operations today with seven branches and as many automated teller machines. It has targeted setting up 25 branches and 100 ATMs by March.
Chidambaram said he has requested the Reserve Bank to facilitate the presence of a Bharatiya Mahila Bank branch in each state capital by March. Lenders are required operate branches in rural and urban areas in a fixed proportion.
Ananthasubramanian said the bank will offer women-centric products that other lenders don't offer, such as funding for a catering business, day care centres and kitchen upgrades.
Bharatiya Mahila Bank has hired 110 fresh recruits, while other staffers are on deputation from government banks, the CMD said.
Chidambaram said the bank will try to overcome problems faced by women, such as difficulty in furnishing collateral because property not registered in their names, and ensure that deserving women get credit.
Ananthasubramanian said the Mahila Bank, which has seed capital of Rs 1,000 crore from the government, will offer a higher interest rate of 4.5 per cent on savings account deposits till Rs 1 lakh and 5 per cent above Rs 1 lakh.
Chidambaram said the government will help the Bharatiya Mahila Bank in accessing cheaper funds.
He said after the bank reaches a certain critical mass on network size, the government will consider listing the BMB on the exchanges or divesting its stake.
Ananthasubramanian said the bank targets a network of 771 branches and total business of Rs 60,000 crore in seven years.
The inauguration of the bank makes India one of the few countries to have a lender dedicated to women.
Women head top lenders in the public sector (State Bank of India) and private sector (ICICI Bank and Axis Bank).
Besides, three foreign lenders and at least three other state-run banks - Bank of India, Allahabad Bank and United Bank - are headed by women.
Gandhi, however, pointed out that only a fifth of bank employees are women and they constitute a low 7.3 per cent of the total credit, she said.
More work needs to be done on these aspects and there is a need to overcome social and cultural barriers that may be hindering factors, the UPA Chairperson said.
Ananthasubramanian said all the Bharatiya Mahila Bank branches are on core banking, software for which has been provided by US-based banking and payment technology solution provider FIS.
FIS, under an agreement with the Government, will provide banking and payment platform to the bank through outsourced delivery model.
"For Bharatiya Mahila Bank, we are deploying all of its technology forum. Every piece of technology and all the back office services are being offered by us," FIS Chief Operating Officer Gary Narcross said.
FIS will provide technology foundation, including core banking, eBanking, debit card and ATM servicing and processing, among others, to the country's newest lender.