Bank – A ‘strange’ place

Tuesday, 28 June 2011 00:08 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By D.C. Ranatunga

Even as undergraduates we hardly had any dealings with banks. Except for a few rich guys, others did not have a bank account – not even a savings account. While at Peradeniya campus in the early 1950s we used to get money orders from home for pocket expenses. We walked across to the Peradeniya sub post office and collected the money.

My father had started depositing a princely sum of Rs. 10 a month way back in the 1940s in an account with the Post Office Savings Bank. The money was not intended to be withdrawn but to grow with an annual interest. In fact, I never even saw the savings book after I had signed it as the depositor on 18 July 1944.

It was in the safe custody of my mother – at least till I was old enough to understand “the value of money,” as she used to say (the cover of the savings book prominently displayed the wording ‘KEEP THIS BOOK IN A SAFE PLACE – Its loss may cause you trouble’). It is a treasured possession to this day and glancing through it I notice that Rs. 7.63 had been earned as interest for the first Rs. 200 at the end of two years.

At the time we passed out from the university, jobs were not a problem. It was quite easy to walk into the Education Department and get a teaching job. A graduate teacher got a salary of Rs. 185 plus a few allowances like cost of living. There were always vacancies in the Labour Department as labour officers. I had been at Lake House with the editorial staff of the ‘Dinamina’ for a few months before I went to Peradeniya. I came back to the Dinamina news desk after my final exam.

As we got jobs, we were keen to open bank accounts, more as a fashion, and start writing cheques at the slightest provocation! Though most of us had done economics for a general degree, banking was still a strange subject – at least where regular transactions were concerned.

An initial deposit was needed to open an account. I remember borrowing the money to open an account from a friend who was from a business family in Matara and had enough cash in hand always – even when he was at Peradeniya.

Having known an executive in the Cooperative Federal Bank – a bank hardly known to the public since it concentrated its activities in the cooperative sector – I opened a current account there. The manager was one Rajakaruna. The bank had a small staff.

It was located at the end of Echelon Square in a small building opposite Parliament (the present Presidential Secretariat), walking distance from Lake House. Being a news reporter it was quite convenient to drop in at the bank as I did my rounds in the Old Secretariat building where most of the Government ministries and departments were housed.

By this time, the Bank of Ceylon was the only bank which the public was used to. It was functioning as a State bank having been established on 1 August 1939 following the recommendation of the Banking Commission of 1934 that a local bank with Government funding be set up. The average man still felt it was ‘a strange place’ for his transactions.

The Mahajana Eksath Peramuna led by Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) won the 1956 general election under the leadership of SLFP leader S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and set up ‘a people’s government’. It was committed to serve the common man. The needs of the common man were being given priority. Avenues were sought to improve the rural economy. There was more stress on the cooperative sector.

When the SLFP was re-elected at the July 1960 election (after a short stint of three months by the UNP from March to July 1960), the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government was committed to continue the earlier policies. Commerce, Trade, Food and Shipping Minister T.B. Ilangaratne took the initiative in expanding the scope of the Cooperative Federal Bank and set up a new bank. Thus was born the People’s Bank – a bank for the people, as the name denotes.

If I remember right, the old customers automatically got their accounts transferred to the Duke Street branch of the People’s Bank – the first to be opened.

Minister Ilangaratne picked the renowned social worker who had transformed his hometown, Sandalankawa, into a cooperative city, to head the new bank. He was Vincent Subasinghe, widely accepted as the father of the cooperative movement in Sri Lanka.

When the small coconut producers in Sandalankawa – a prominent area in the Coconut Triangle – found it difficult to survive following the recession in the 1930s, he formed a cooperative society and paid a better price to the small producer.

A desiccated coconut mill was set up on a loan from the Government. The cooperative society purchased a 22 acre plot and set up a coir factory. He established a school having got his father to donate some land.

The womenfolk were encouraged to start on handlooms by providing them with handloom machines on easy payment terms. A cooperative hospital was opened. Many more industries were started – all run as cooperatives. Soon Sandalankawa became prosperous.

Prime Minister Bandaranaike invited him to head the CWE in 1956. He made the CWE a profit-making concern and shared the profits with the employees.

When invited to head People’s Bank, he accepted because he was genuinely interested in helping the average man. He introduced the system of writing cheques in Sinhala so that the customer felt at ease to transact business.

He did not collect a salary from the places where he was head. Even the expenses for a trip to India to study the banking system had been borne by him. He was only concerned about serving the people.

The foundation he laid at People’s Bank which commenced operations on 1 July 1961 was rock solid. Maybe the bank will reflect on his service as it celebrates the completion of 50 years.

Getting back to my savings book, I had never deposited any money in the account and had forgotten to check how much balance had been left after I had withdrawn Rs. 1,000 in 1962. In early 2006 I dropped in at the NSB and presented my book. They entered an interest of 186.29 and a balance of 225.70 and returned the book.