Book Review – A banking odyssey: The story of Canara Bank

This book by eminent journalist MV Kamath could have been a great book on history of Canara Bank and Indian banking as well. However, the book emerges more like a script written to please Canara bank officials. It does not offer that critique, a skill in which journalists usually excel. Having said that such books are really rare as Indian history is usually limited to political arena. Things like finance and banking are rare, so one has to be content with what one has.

The first edition was published in 1991 commemorating 85 years of the bank (found in 1906). A subsequent edition was released in 2006 on the Bank’s centenary. The first one till 1991 is still a great story but the later edition post 1991 is one where one could have added more spice to the story. The banking game changed post 1991 and the challenges etc. faced by the bank amidst rise in competition could have been explained better.

The book has a fair share of pictures which make it a more engaging reading. Usually history books are dry with just text and more of text. This one is different. Some pictures like that of the founder A Subbarao going in a bullock cart to convince people to subscribe shares of the bank is amazing. Tells you couple of things. First, there was an equity culture way bank in early 20th century in a town like Mangalore. Second, how overall work remains same just that technology changes. Earlier it was bullock carts and now the internet. Third, setting up banks in India was much easier in colonial India than free India.  You just had to get the logistics of setting  a bank in place. Now it is all so stringently regulated with one committee recommending more banks, other sitting on the advice and then another one granting licences. Why can’t setting banks in India be easier?

Why was the bank started? Well the Swadesi movement was rife in early 20th century. Many banks came up during that time. There was a need to lend money to small businesses etc in Mangalore region. There is also an interesting story that there was a tradition in GSB community that when any child was born, certain sum of money was kept with a trusted person. This money  was given to the person on reaching adulthood without any interest. But what if the trusted person became bankrupt or depositor died?  There were also cases of the trusted person refusing that such money was given to him at all. Such complaints did come to the founder Subbarao who was an eminent lawyer of his region. The Presidency Bank of Madras had a branch but was mostly for elite. Similar logic was used for setting up Indian Bank in Madras as well which was established in 1907.

In its introduction, the book has a useful discussion on Gowd Saraswat Brahmin (GSB) as the founder came from the same community. How someone from a Brahmin community ended up setting a bank is quite amazing. In discussion on Indian business. we often lose out the role communities have played in setting up firms and banks in India. This was really well explained by Harish Damodaran in his excellent book.

Infact, Canara Bank maintained its competitive edge for a long time because most of its staff came from the GSB community. There is a nice discussion about a study which compared Canara Bank with Punjab National Bank. PNB had a staf coming from all parts of North India and there was no cohesiveness amidst the staff. Whereas Canara Bank was different with branches having a universal similarity to it with things like pictures of deities on walls, incence sticks and so on.

Canara Bank had much more kinship than other banks. This is how other banks in west have also emerged with most having Jewish origins. This is how trust was built. These qualities are no more valued and people want a more diversified culture. This is an interesting aspect of research as to when the qualities of homogeneous staff began to become a weakness.

The book then goes onto discuss how Canara Bank managed all the banking events (both global and national) like Great Depression, World Wars, Independence, Partition and then Bank nationalisation. Interestingly, bank nationalisation did not impact the bank much as the bank’s policy from beginning were more tuned towards welfare of rural/small scale/agriculture. The time period then moves to 1991 when the bank had to fight competition as new private sector banks cam in the picture.

The book could have been a huge introspection exercise as it was re-published and updated in its centenary year. How does the bank move ahead given the competition from both domestic and global banks? How does it fit technology and still maintain its legacy over the years? Is there a future for a public sector bank in Indian banking? If yes, what should Canara Bank do?

From the state of global banking today, the story of Canara Bank has some lessons. How trust was generated amidst Indian public as banks started springing up? Why people came out to banks to give up their hard earned savings? Why despite so called modernism and development of banking, trust is lacking in banking/finance worldwide?

History of Canara Bank does make you wonder and think through these questions..

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