Brief History of Urban Cooperative Banks in India

The term Urban Co-operative Banks (UCBs), though not formally defined, refers to primary cooperative banks located in urban and semi-urban areas. These banks, till 1996, were allowed to lend money only for non-agricultural purposes. This distinction does not hold today. These banks were traditionally centred around communities, localities work place groups. They essentially lent to small borrowers and businesses. Today, their scope of operations has widened considerably.

The origins of the urban cooperative banking movement in India can be traced to the close of nineteenth century when, inspired by the success of the experiments related to the cooperative movement in Britain and the cooperative credit movement in Germany such societies were set up in India. Cooperative societies are based on the principles of cooperation, - mutual help, democratic decision making and open membership. Cooperatives represented a new and alternative approach to organisaton as against proprietary firms, partnership firms and joint stock companies which represent the dominant form of commercial organisation.

The Beginnings

The first known mutual aid society in India was probably the ‘Anyonya Sahakari Mandali’ organised in the erstwhile princely State of Baroda in 1889 under the guidance of Vithal Laxman also known as Bhausaheb Kavthekar. Urban co-operative credit societies, in their formative phase came to be organised on a community basis to meet the consumption oriented credit needs of their members. Salary earners’ societies inculcating habits of thrift and self help played a significant role in popularising the movement, especially amongst the middle class as well as organized labour. From its origins then to today, the thrust of UCBs, historically, has been to mobilise savings from the middle and low income urban groups and purvey credit to their members - many of which belonged to weaker sections.

The enactment of Cooperative Credit Societies Act, 1904, however, gave the real impetus to the movement. The first urban cooperative credit society was registered in Canjeevaram (Kanjivaram) in the erstwhile Madras province in October, 1904. Amongst the prominent credit societies were the Pioneer Urban in Bombay (November 11, 1905), the No.1 Military Accounts Mutual Help Co-operative Credit Society in Poona (January 9, 1906). Cosmos in Poona (January 18, 1906), Gokak Urban (February 15, 1906) and Belgaum Pioneer (February 23, 1906) in the Belgaum district, the Kanakavli-Math Co-operative Credit Society and the Varavade Weavers’ Urban Credit Society (March 13, 1906) in the South Ratnagiri (now Sindhudurg) district. The most prominent amongst the early credit societies was the Bombay Urban Co-operative Credit Society, sponsored by Vithaldas Thackersey and Lallubhai Samaldas established on January 23, 1906..

The Cooperative Credit Societies Act, 1904 was amended in 1912, with a view to broad basing it to enable organisation of non-credit societies. The Maclagan Committee of 1915 was appointed to review their performance and suggest measures for strengthening them. The committee observed that such institutions were eminently suited to cater to the needs of the lower and middle income strata of society and would inculcate the principles of banking amongst the middle classes. The committee also felt that the urban cooperative credit movement was more viable than agricultural credit societies. The recommendations of the Committee went a long way in establishing the urban cooperative credit movement in its own right.

In the present day context, it is of interest to recall that during the banking crisis of 1913-14, when no fewer than 57 joint stock banks collapsed, there was a there was a flight of deposits from joint stock banks to cooperative urban banks. Maclagan Committee chronicled this event thus:

“As a matter of fact, the crisis had a contrary effect, and in most provinces, there was a movement to withdraw deposits from non-cooperatives and place them in cooperative institutions, the distinction between two classes of security being well appreciated and a preference being given to the latter owing partly to the local character and publicity of cooperative institutions but mainly, we think, to the connection of Government with Cooperative movement”.

Under State Purview

The constitutional reforms which led to the passing of the Government of India Act in 1919 transferred the subject of “Cooperation” from Government of India to the Provincial Governments. The Government of Bombay passed the first State Cooperative Societies Act in 1925 “which not only gave the movement its size and shape but was a pace setter of cooperative activities and stressed the basic concept of thrift, self help and mutual aid.” Other States followed. This marked the beginning of the second phase in the history of Cooperative Credit Institutions.

There was the general realization that urban banks have an important role to play in economic construction. This was asserted by a host of committees. The Indian Central Banking Enquiry Committee (1931) felt that urban banks have a duty to help the small business and middle class people. The Mehta-Bhansali Committee (1939), recommended that those societies which had fulfilled the criteria of banking should be allowed to work as banks and recommended an Association for these banks. The Co-operative Planning Committee (1946) went on record to say that urban banks have been the best agencies for small people in whom Joint stock banks are not generally interested. The Rural Banking Enquiry Committee (1950), impressed by the low cost of establishment and operations recommended the establishment of such banks even in places smaller than taluka towns.

The first study of Urban Co-operative Banks was taken up by RBI in the year 1958-59. The Report published in 1961 acknowledged the widespread and financially sound framework of urban co-operative banks; emphasized the need to establish primary urban cooperative banks in new centers and suggested that State Governments lend active support to their development. In 1963, Varde Committee recommended that such banks should be organised at all Urban Centres with a population of 1 lakh or more and not by any single community or caste. The committee introduced the concept of minimum capital requirement and the criteria of population for defining the urban centre where UCBs were incorporated.

Duality of Control

However, concerns regarding the professionalism of urban cooperative banks gave rise to the view that they should be better regulated. Large cooperative banks with paid-up share capital and reserves of Rs.1 lakh were brought under the perview of the Banking Regulation Act 1949 with effect from 1st March, 1966 and within the ambit of the Reserve Bank’s supervision. This marked the beginning of an era of duality of control over these banks. Banking related functions (viz. licensing, area of operations, interest rates etc.) were to be governed by RBI and registration, management, audit and liquidation, etc. governed by State Governments as per the provisions of respective State Acts. In 1968, UCBS were extended the benefits of Deposit Insurance.

Towards the late 1960s there was much debate regarding the promotion of the small scale industries. UCBs came to be seen as important players in this context. The Working Group on Industrial Financing through Co-operative Banks, (1968 known as Damry Group) attempted to broaden the scope of activities of urban co-operative banks by recommending that these banks should finance the small and cottage industries. This was reiterated by the Banking Commisssion (1969).

The Madhavdas Committee (1979) evaluated the role played by urban co-operative banks in greater details and drew a roadmap for their future role recommending support from RBI and Government in the establishment of such banks in backward areas and prescribing viability standards.

The Hate Working Group (1981) desired better utilisation of banks' surplus funds and that the percentage of the Cash Reserve Ratio (CRR) & the Statutory Liquidity Ratio (SLR) of these banks should be brought at par with commercial banks, in a phased manner. While the Marathe Committee (1992) redefined the viability norms and ushered in the era of liberalization, the Madhava Rao Committee (1999) focused on consolidation, control of sickness, better professional standards in urban co-operative banks and sought to align the urban banking movement with commercial banks.

A feature of the urban banking movement has been its heterogeneous character and its uneven geographical spread with most banks concentrated in the states of Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu. While most banks are unit banks without any branch network, some of the large banks have established their presence in many states when at their behest multi-state banking was allowed in 1985. Some of these banks are also Authorised Dealers in Foreign Exchange

Recent Developments

Over the years, primary (urban) cooperative banks have registered a significant growth in number, size and volume of business handled. As on 31st March, 2003 there were 2,104 UCBs of which 56 were scheduled banks. About 79 percent of these are located in five states, - Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. Recently the problems faced by a few large UCBs have highlighted some of the difficulties these banks face and policy endeavours are geared to consolidating and strengthening this sector and improving governance.

Source: Adapted from a paper by O.P. Sharma, formerly of the History Cell.