MUMBAI, February 26, 2012
Small loans add up to lethal debts
The microfinance industry pursued a path of rapid business growth in recent years; two investigations now link it to debtor suicides
DEBT AND DEATH: Family members with a photograph of Hari Prasad, who took his own life in August 2010 by consuming pesticide in their home in Kadiri in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh. He had run up debts with a microfinance company. In the photograph taken last week are Sunita, the widow, 22, along with her daughter Shwetha, 5, and son Kiran, 16 months (AP)
First they were stripped of their utensils, furniture, mobile phones, television sets, ration cards and heirloom gold jewellery. Then, some of them drank pesticide. One woman threw herself into a pond. Another jumped into a well with her children.
Sometimes, the debt collectors watched nearby.
More than 200 poor, debt-ridden residents of Andhra Pradesh killed themselves in late 2010, according to media reports compiled by the State government. The State blamed microfinance companies which give small loans intended to lift up the very poor for fuelling a frenzy of over-indebtedness, and then pressuring borrowers so relentlessly that some took their own lives. The companies, including market leader SKS Microfinance, denied it.
An independent investigation commissioned by the company, however, linked SKS employees to at least seven of the deaths. A second investigation commissioned by an industry umbrella group that probed the role of many microfinance companies, did not draw conclusions but pointed to SKS' involvement in two more cases that ended in suicide. Neither study has been made public.
Both reports said SKS employees had verbally harassed over-indebted borrowers, forced them to pawn valuable items, incited other borrowers to humiliate them and orchestrated sit-ins outside their homes to publicly shame them. In some cases, SKS staff physically harassed defaulters, according to the report commissioned by the company. Only in death would the debts be forgiven.
The videos and reports tell stark stories:
One woman drank pesticide and died a day after an SKS loan agent told her to prostitute her daughters to pay off her debt. She had been given Rs. 1.5 lakh in loans but only made Rs. 600 a week.
Another SKS debt collector told a delinquent borrower to drown herself in a pond if she wanted her loan waived. The next day, she did. She left behind four children.
One agent blocked a woman from bringing her young son, weak with diarrhoea, to the hospital, demanding payment first. Other borrowers, who could not get any new loans until she paid, told her that if she wanted to die, they would bring her pesticide. An SKS staff member was there when she drank the poison. She survived.
An 18-year-old girl, pressured until she handed over Rs. 150 meant for a school examination fee, also drank pesticide. She left a suicide note: “Work hard and earn money. Do not take loans.”
In all these cases, the report commissioned by SKS concluded that the company's staff members were directly or indirectly responsible. — AP