The Financial Express

Stream of consciousness

Rural interest trade and hapless victims

M Aminul Islam | Published: December 20, 2019 20:33:49

Rural interest trade and hapless victims

Can you recall the characters of the Bangla classic 'Jok' of Abu Ishak that you might have read in your teens? Beat your brains and you will remember the textbook episode at high school level in the 1990s. He has perfectly portrayed the real picture of the ultra-poor working class and their exploitative lending masters in the contemporary society of his times. The prolific writer has astutely depicted the high interest-seeking biped as the bloodsucking leech. The wordsmith has rightly personified a leech in a human figure, a Shylock of Venice. This is an allegory, a metaphor for a person who extorts high or compound interest from others or sponges off their hard-earned money.

Wazed Chowdhury, the landlord, does a plum job in Dhaka. Poor villager Osman works on Wazed's land as a share-cropper who grows jute on the land. After harvest, he makes a 50-50 split of jute and gives a part to the landowner. Things were going typically, but the problem arose years later. Wazed's crooked son Yusuf and his local agents took thumb impressions of the hapless Osman and his co-farmers on a piece of blank paper. The thugs made an ingenious contrivance to get the illiterate Osman and friends to sign the bond with an eye to getting two-thirds of the crop from the next season. Things then started to roll differently.

Abu Ishak's human leeches exist in rural society and still stalk those who need a loan most. They are the big leeches feeding off the hard-working people. They suck Osman, the protagonist of 'Jok', dry in the name of extracting the money lent (!) to buy a plough and a pair of oxen. Osman sees stars in front of his eyes. The likes of Osman are facing the same ordeal, the same trials and tribulations daily in rural Bangladesh. The same old three-share system of depriving the poor and the ignorant by double-crossers and their aiders and abettors is still in vogue in the same way or in a different fashion.

What is happening in the country today can be described in a fit metaphor like the 'old wine in new bottles' style. A roaring interest business is going on in rural Bangladesh. Time is opportune for loan sharks and their dodgy methods to make money. A lender is not a lone wolf. He and his mountebanks spread out their tentacles like a spider's web. The hydra-headed creditors charge extremely high rates of interest, typically under illegal and untenable terms and conditions. Open newspapers online and offline, and you will sometimes be saturated with reports of exploitation and deceptive trading practices by sleazy moneylenders.

They are the tricksters who target those in abject poverty and those who are at bad credit risks. A debtor's home and a parcel, if any, are held as collateral for a loan. In case the loan is not redeemed, they take possession of the things. The predatory usurers then use a vicious circle, a gang, a syndicate of touts, thugs, loafers and persecutors who help them squeeze the lent money and the attendant interest from loanees, mostly members of the landless peasantry and those living in the lower social stratum. This rampant business of cheating the innocent in cahoots with local big kahunas has become the norm in the sleepy rural backwoods.

Bihar is a case of this sharp practice in point. It is a union under Shibganj sub-district of boom town Bogura, the gateway to the country's north. Interest business has been widespread at Bihar, a hamlet known to everyone as its scenic surroundings and the Buddhist archaeological sites, for years. Once a hot spot of village politics, the hamlet has turned hot with the touch of national politics. Politics is these days the very stuff of discussion among villagers there. People now debate politics and policies raising a storm in a teacup at Bihar. Politics is not an issue here. To my money, a man is politically inbred now, right?

The problem is the area is fast sliding into a morass of immoral activities like higher interest-based money-lending business through informal channels and its resultant offshoots like narcotics and drugs by the nouveau riche and parvenus. A popular tourist spot in the countryside is going to lose appeal and lustre to the local and foreign sightseers alike. The area has got vitiated for such wrongdoings and unethical acts. Scores of families have lost everything, their belongings and their dignity, at the hands of the culprits. It so happens that a loanee has to sell his lone piece of land to pay off the principal and the compound interest every week or month.

This rural bloodsucking business has been perpetual in perennial Bangla's feudal culture for centuries. The landed gentry depriving the landless, marginal farmers and sharecroppers are the elements of classics of Bangla literature. In books and movies, we read about dadon (loan) transactions and the saga of how loan sharks have designs on borrowers and how the borrowed money multiplied. We are familiar with a common scene: a moneyed man with a pot belly sits on a mat and a chest/strong in his front. The crooked man compels a pawnor to surrender all his possessions -- be it a deed or an ornament. The unwary party acts out of expediency to meet his dire needs first.

Things have changed drastically over time. So has changed the way of doing business. It is not limited to the confines of a loan shark's den. It thrives with the blessing of the local biggies who flex political muscles and who give thumps down to the long-held social mores and established cultures. They are antisocial; they are the destroyers of social values and fabric. This social vice is fast spreading to every household and every locality. Alongside the poor, mid-level government and private job-holders are also falling fast into the loan trap. Why is the population in the local townships growing so fast? The roaring rural interest business is the right answer.

On the one hand, a section of people are left paupers another section of people are getting fatter on the other. Loan sharks are out to reign supreme with the power of money as money can buy. They have a heavy purse that never lacks friends. They buy local enchiladas and big cheeses. They care about nothing, no respect and fellow feeling, which is too pricey nowadays. Social fabric, morality and religious ethics mean very little to them. Lending money at exorbitant rates is the foremost goal they aim night and day, no matter how low they need to stoop to do so. The question is: what is the source of power of the loan sharks? Or how do they manage to run this unlawful business? The answer is politics, all-engulfing politics.

As interest business is not a thing of the past, the legal authorities know full well of this seemingly unstoppable trade. Why don't samurais under a capable shogun wage a social movement to stamp out the roots of the mikados of interest business and wheeler-dealers? Local reps and the administration have roles too. They must act as saviours to shed their predatory image. They must throw a big net to collar the parasites. It is time to stand united and be up in arms like Osman, Tota, Karim Gazi and Nobu Kha to restrain the leeches and sharks, the Shylocks of Bengal and the Wazeds of our society. Jago bahe, konthe sobai…

The writer is a news consultant at The Financial Express. 'maislam.rose@gmail.com'.

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