Guwahati: Surobhi and her husband Jintu Kalita had to sell their tempo, the only source of a steady income they had, to pay instalments of the microfinance loan taken to set up a poultry.

The poultry business had started bleeding as COVID-19 restrictions on transportations set in, hitting their ability to reach markets and repay loans.

A member of a local Self Help Group (SHG), 33-year-old Surabhi Gogoi Kalita of Nazira told PTI that everything seemed “dark” now as the family was left with no dependable source of income.

The tempo had been the mainstay of the three-member family while the poultry reared in the backyard with a loan from a Micro-Finance Institution took care of extras.

However, repeated lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been harsh on business and the burden of repaying the loan and subsequent harassment by agents of the MFI, too heavy a cross to bear.

So, when the ruling party, ahead of this years Assembly election said all loans availed by the women SHGs would be waived if the BJP-led coalition government retains power in the state, Surobhi and lakhs like her saw a ray of hope.

However, when the government, barely one-and-a-half month after assuming office, said the promise was merely a political statement and placed numerous riders on loan waivers, including surrendering the chance to avail bank loans in the future, the women were left in a quandary.

Hundreds of women from different SHGs across the state are now daily coming out to seek a complete loan waiver, something which may be difficult to implement.

First the MFIs misled us while giving the loans, and now our own chief minister …. had said clearly that all our loans will be waived, but is now going back on promise, Surabhi claimed over phone.

For the loan waiver, the state government has decided to categorise borrowers in three groups with women who are paying loans regularly being placed in the first category.

They will be encouraged to continue repaying so that their CIBIL score is not affected and the government will reward them with a one-time incentive.

The second category are those women whose payments are overdue, as they had stopped paying after hearing loans will be waived. They would have to continue repaying while the Government would repay the overdue amount.

In the third category, are those women who have no plans to take any further loans or engage in any further activity and the government will provide them with full relief.

The women taking full waiver will, however, not be able to take any further loans in the future.

We are protesting against our own government, at a time when there are practically no means of livelihood available for us due to the repeated lockdowns. We were poor, but not so desperate as now, she added.

Almost all women in Surabhi’s village and adjoining areas had formed themselves into SHGs and taken the loans from the MFIs, which were easily sanctioned to them.

But when the women failed to repay instalments, the problems start.

We are supposed to start repaying from the first week itself. How can we get any income from poultry in seven days? The agents don’t explain the rules but cite them when we fail to pay back. Its common here for agents to take away household items, including tin sheets used as house roofs, when we fail to pay, Surabhi said.

Kalita added that most of the women do not even know how much money in total they borrowed or how much Is left to repay as they had taken money from multiple MFIs with varying conditions. Interest rates typically vary from between 24 per cent to 36 per cent with multiple penalties in case of payment delays.

Same is the tale with Panchami Gogoi of Amguri in Sivasagar district. She had no income due to the lockdown and so no means to repay the MFI loan.

“We are village women. We don’t understand the complex bank rules or what the government is now saying about who will have their loans waived,” Gogoi said helplessly.

Among the conditions being set for availing the waiver is that those who use this facility will not get loans from any banking institution in the future as their CIBIL score will be adversely affected.

The agents threaten us that our CIBIL will suffer if we don’t repay and even our children will never be able to take loans in future. Most of us didn’t even understand what it is CIBIL. And now, even the government is using the same card on us, Surabhi said.

The women SHGs were over the years sanctioned loans by the MFIs, many a time in gross violation of RBI guidelines like sanctioning more than stipulated amount for SHGs and by giving more than three loans to the same individuals.

When the women failed to pay their instalments, which are usually charged on a weekly basis, loan agents have harassed women, with many even seeking sexual favours to condone delays in repayment, a point highlighted by Sarma as the Finance minister in the last government in the Floor of the state Assembly.

A committee appointed by the new government has discovered that 26 lakh customers with 45 lakh bank accounts have taken loans from 40 lenders, with 53 per cent of this amount lent by banks, 22 per cent by Non-Banking Finance Companies (NBFCs) and MFIs, 26 per cent by small finance banks and 16 per cent by regular NBFCs.

Altogether 19.10 lakh customer have borrowed from one lender, 5.08 lakh from two lenders, 1.54 lakh from three lenders and 60,000 from more than three lenders.

The outstanding loan amount, which was initially calculated to be Rs 12,500 crore by the committee, has been brought down to Rs 8,250 crore and this will benefit 22 lakh women borrowers, Sarma had said on Friday.

Guwahati Development Department minister Ashok Singhal, who is heading the committee, had said action will be taken against lenders who have flouted norms as most of the women who had taken loans are not educated and are not aware of the terms and conditions.

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