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Graduating from Coop Federal Bank


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Reading about the logo change of People’s Bank and its current vision, I remembered the early days of the bank. 

In the 1950s, facing the sea near what was then known as the Parliament roundabout in the corner of where Hotel Galadari is today was a small two-storey building coming down from the colonial era. It was not at all impressive and the look of it was far from one of a financial institution. 

It housed the Cooperative Federal Bank, a small bank compared to the major foreign banks operating in Colombo at the time. It was not a much-talked about bank and if I remember right, it dealt mainly with financial transactions of cooperative societies. Current accounts could be opened by individuals. 

I had joined the Dinamina editorial staff and thought I should open a bank account although the salary was a paltry two to three hundred rupees, which meant a fairly decent pay at that time in the mid-1950s. 

I opened a current account in this bank mainly because I had a friend who was an assistant manager. The general manager was one Rajakaruna. The bank was walking distance from Lake House and was quite convenient to do any transaction because there were few customers. I used to cover parliamentary proceedings which generally started at 2 p.m. There was ample time to do a walk after lunch, have a chat with the friend in the bank and cash a cheque whenever I wanted to. 

The people-friendly Bandaranaike Government was looking for opportunities to make the masses feel the difference between their Government and the previous ones. Starting with the declaration of May Day as a public holiday, the Employees Provident Fund provided security for the working classes. 

There were other benefits too like regular working hours for those who were not governed by any regulations, and the entitlement for holidays, overtime and leave facilities. The Paddy Lands Act gave the farmers a much better deal than earlier when there was no provision how they should be treated by the owners of paddy lands. 

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The banking habit was something strange to the rural masses. Post Office Savings were all that they knew about saving money. A decision was made to develop rural banking and thereby improve the economic conditions of the people.

The Government decided to replace the Cooperative Federal Bank with something much more meaningful. Just as much as Labour Minister T.B. Ilangaratne, a one-time public servant was responsible for the measures to improve the lot of the working classes, it was his turn as Minister of Trade, Food, Cooperative and Shipping under the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government (July 1960) to introduce legislation to establish the People’s Bank as a Government financial institution. 

The People’s Bank Act 29 of 1961 became effective on 1 July 1961 and the new bank opened its doors to a whole new set of people who were not used to banking. The first branch was opened in Duke Street, Fort behind the Times of Ceylon building. The staff of the Coop Federal Bank moved over there.

 In opening branches in the outstations priority was given to the predominantly agricultural areas Hingurakgoda, Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura and Hambantota were among the first lot of outstation branches.

The Government could not have found  a better person than Vincent Subasinghe from Sandalankawa – identified as the ‘Father of Cooperative Movement’ due to his pioneering efforts to help the people in the area mostly using his own resources – as the Chairman of the Board of Directors of People’s Bank. Under his correct guidance the bank got a firm foundation and over the 55 years of its existence, in spite of constant changes in Government, moved forward to be a bank of the people. 

Unlike most Government undertakings, the bank has been a success in a highly competitive sector. The use of Sinhala, Tamil and English by the bank from inception helped to reach the people who were quite at ease to transact business with the feeling of ‘ape bankuwa’.

From small beginnings dating back to the Cooperative Federal Bank days, the bank today claims to serve over 16 million customers through a network of 740 branches throughout the country with over 3,000 ATMS linked to the LankaPay gateway. It encourages various industries including agriculture, real estate, commercial development, small and medium enterprises and exports.


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