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Financial Co-operatives for the New Millennium: A Chronographic Study of the Indian Financial Co-operatives and The Desjardins Movement, Quebec

This paper presents a chronographic study of the financial co-operative movement in India and compares it with a chronographic study of the Desjardins (credit union) movement of Quebec. These movements emerged around the same time, at the end of the nineteenth century, but have developed along very different paths, and have had different levels of success. In documenting the significant events of the 20th century the author examines the strategy adopted at each phase and how it led to the direction which the co-ops took. The chronological study is broken down into four key phases; 1900 to 1930; 1930 to 1950; 1950 to 1990; and 1990 to 2000. One key observation is throughout the history of the co-op movement of Quebec, it can be seen that the legislation came in only after the movement had laid down the basic operating procedures in the field. The State was being responsive in helping co-ops rather than assume an activist role in promotion of one form of business or the other. This contrasts significantly with the Indian situation where the State was heavily involved in promoting coops and eventually became the major shareholder.

Thus while the Desjardins credit union movement was becoming the largest financial service provider in Quebec, the Indian cooperatives were led into a dependence trap with too much State intervention and poor management. Since 1990, however, a silent parallel co-op movement has been picking up all over India, which has started very much on the basic operating principles the Desjardins movement started off with nearly a century ago. These principles are based on mutual aid, with thrift as a basis. Some states have enacted new laws to govern these new generation coops. In Canada, Desjardins also have problems to solve. They are facing intense competition from the private sector and their members are moving away from the traditional savings products which were the main source of resources for the movement. Furthermore, automation, cost cutting, downsizing and adoption of cutting edge technology is becoming essential and this is altering the fundamental member-coop relationship which was once so important. The personal knowledge that credit committee members used to have of members’ finances is being replaced by computers and credit scoring models.

In the final section of his paper, Prof. Sriram, outlines the shape of things to come for the two cooperative movements. He notes that the Indian financial cooperatives are almost a century behind the Desjardins movement, in terms of being autonomous and self-reliant, but believes they can readily catch up given the wealth of experience there is to draw on. However, he does not believe they should follow the route that Desjardins followed last century and thus arrive at the same problems that Desjardins have today. He thinks the future for financial cooperatives in India will be in their ability to function at local level, satisfying local needs. It will be a structure where the members play a pivotal role and not technology. With the penetration of the internet, the role of intermediaries benefiting from arbitrage is going to diminish, so the coops would need to move more towards fee-based activities rather than fund-based activities. All sophisticated financial products and services can be outsourced with the village level cooperative acting as an interface.

As for Desjardins, they have little option but to mimic their corporate counterparts and get their costs under control. It is probable they will have to consolidate so that the movement becomes a single cooperative and all the individual “Caisses” become merely branches. This has significant implications for member involvement and member control but there may be innovative ways of retaining member interest – perhaps the internet offers a new way for discussion and democracy in the coop movement in Quebec.

This is an extremely informative paper that provokes much reflection about the nature of financial cooperatives, how they have evolved and where they are going in the two contrasting contexts of Canada and India.

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