Satna: Clad in a brand new white kurta and a blue dhoti, Rajju Mawasi is talking excitedly to a group of villagers under a peepal tree in the heart of Barha Mawan, a Mawasi village in Satna district. It was his daughter’s wedding the previous day and he looks happy to be relieved of his responsibilities. Though he looks tired from all the running around for the wedding, he is keen to share his experiences with the villagers. However, something seems to be amiss in Rajju’s happiness. Amidst all the excitement and laughter, Rajju is silently contemplating how to repay a loan of Rs 10,000 that he availed of a mahajan (a local loan shark) for the wedding.
The terms of the loan are harsh. Apart from a monthly interest rate of 10 percent, the due amount will double in a year if Rajju fails to settle the loan within the stipulated period of time.
“I’m happy that I have fulfilled my responsibilities and my daughter is happily married now. However, I have to leave the village again to pay off the debt,” says Rajju, who had to go through the same rigmarole after getting his first daughter married off five years ago. “I will have to leave the village and work in Maharashtra or some other place for a year or two so that I will be able to repay the loan in time,” he exclaims.
“In the case of my older daughter’s wedding, I had taken a loan of Rs 5,000 from a mahajan. The dues increased so rapidly that I had to repay almost Rs 10,000 to clear that loan in three years. There was no way I could have saved that much money by farming and collecting forest produce in the village. So, I had to work at a factory in Maharashtra, where my monthly salary was Rs 9,000. Now, I have to go back in search of a job so that I can repay the new loan,” he adds.
Despite the Indian government’s attempts to purportedly streamline the banking sector, especially in rural India, scores of villagers like Rajju are still deprived of banking facilities and are wedged to take loans from unauthorised loan sharks.
Loans with no principles
Though Rajju has the option of moving out of the village in search of a job to pay back the debt, the case of Vandana Mawasi, another villager from Barha Mawan, is far more exacting. She and her husband Chiraunji Lal Mawasi had taken a loan of Rs 10,000 five years ago. She claims that she has repaid Rs 14,000 already but the mahajan is demanding another Rs 15,000 to settle the loan.
“I agree that we are not educated. The mahajan seems to be taking advantage of this. I had borrowed Rs 10,000 and paid back Rs 14,000 in three years. However, instead of closing the loan, the mahajan went on to demand an additional Rs 15,000 from us,” she claims.
Chiraunji Lal adds, “The Mahajan threatened to seize my home if I failed to pay him the additional Rs 15,000. Left with no other option, my 22-year-old son, Santosh Kumar, asked the mahajan for some more time so that he could move out of the village and get a job to clear the amount. Instead, the mahajan offered him a job and claimed that he would cut a certain amount from his salary every month and that the loan would be cleared in six months. It has been six months now and the loan still remains as it was.”
“My son has a wife and two children. He did not get a single rupee while working with the mahajan. Now, he has to leave the village as there is nothing left at home to eat. The children would die of starvation if this situation continues. I have sent them to their maternal grandparent’s place to save their life,” says Vandana Mawasi.
When asked if she has approached the police, Vandana says that she fears that she would get no help from them as “the police are with upper caste people.”
Life amidst loan sharks and slave masters
According to Shiv Kailash Mawasi, a local activist working in this region, Vandana’s case is not an isolated incident. “Another villager called Lotan Mawasi was duped by some people on the pretext of helping him with the prime minister’s housing scheme. He did receive a first installment of funds under this scheme and constructed the foundation of a house. However, he couldn’t build further as he didn’t receive any subsequent installments. Things became worse when the sarpanch and other government officials started to exert pressure on him to finish the construction work or face legal action,” says Shiv Kailash.
“A man belonging to an upper caste offered to help Lotan if he could work for him. After working with him for six months without pay, Lotan realised that he was made to work as a bonded labourer. Lotan left the village following this incident and no one knows where he is now,” Shiv Kailash adds.
“The situation is even worse in Patan village of Majhgawan Block, where some of the villagers have mortgaged their land for just a few thousands of rupees,” he concludes.
I’m a social worker, claims mahajan
However, a mahajan from Pindara village, on the condition of anonymity, has an entirely different story to tell. “I am not the enemy of my debtors. I only try to help them out when they are in need. I never go to anyone’s house requesting them to take loans from me. If they are not willing to pay the rate of interest that I charge, they are free to not borrow the money in the first place. The villagers know that I’m also a farmer and they hold me in high regard for my helping nature. They would not take my help if they felt that I exploit them. It is a kind of social work that I do here. That’s why they never approach the police. They know that I am the only one who has always helped whenever they are in need,” he claims.
Commenting on the issue, Satna Superintendent of Police Riyaz Iqbal says, “I was posted at this district in March and no cases of bonded labour have been registered ever since. However, we do have a number of cases related to financial frauds on the pretext of providing easy loans. We have registered as many as five FIRs in Satna city alone.”
“As of now, my focus is to eliminate crime against women and tackle cyber frauds in the district. But we would also try to create awareness in the villages about bonded labour and how the police can help them,” Iqbal adds.