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Loan sharks prey on bidi workers in Pranab’s turf

JANGIPUR (Murshidabad), 1 DEC: Even though banks have been making a beeline for opening branches in Union finance minister Mr Pranab Mukherjee’s constituency of Jangipur, thousands of bidi rollers continue to fall into the clutches of loan sharks.
Jangipur, a district sub-division of 18 lakh people and an economy driven by wages from bidi rolling, has become a preferred destination of banks. At Jangipur alone there are about 58 bank branches, or a little more than 20 per cent of the total bank branches in Murshidabad. The district has about 289 bank branches and around 50 were opened between April 2010 and February 2011.
Interestingly, despite the concentration of banks in Jangipur, a major section of the population continues to fall prey to moneylenders who give loans to such people with an average daily income of Rs 45-Rs 70 at an exorbitant interest rate of 15-20 per cent. According to local NGOs working with bidi rollers, the workers seldom have any access to bank credit. The influence of the private moneylender is predominant as many of these bidi rollers have earlier defaulted on repayments and thus are not eligible for fresh loans. Sometimes the moneylenders do not insist on collateral, but if the loan is not repaid within the time limit then interest rate may shoot up even to double.
In some other cases, loan is provided by the local moneylenders to the borrowers with the condition that the latter would provide their labour at the time of their need, mostly during the sowing/harvesting season which in local parlance is better known as bandha munish. At times, the condition may turn weird. For instance, in 2008, unable to repay a loan he had taken for his wedding, a Murshidabad man “mortgaged” his wife and vanished. For two years, the woman was allegedly raped and kept confined in the moneylender’s house. Mr Noor Mollah, a bidi roller in one of the largest bidi factory Pataka, said: “The middleman asked for a security deposit in exchange for raw materials. He took a loan from a local moneylender but could not repay it. The middlemen started threatening our family and my son had to go to Kerala to work.” Mr Molla’s son sends money to his family every month, one-third of which goes to the moneylender. Mr Nazrul Haq’s case was no different. To replay the loan taken from a moneylender, his wife has to work at the moneylender’s house as domestic help while he works at a bidi unit. “My wife used to roll almost 500 bidis a day. But now she rolls bidis at night and works at the moneylender’s house during the day,” he said.
According to a joint study by the Small Industries Development Bank of India (Sidbi) and the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (Nabard), in Suti-II, Suti-I, Farakka and Raghunathganj blocks in Murshidabad district, bidi trade provides subsistence to 70 per cent to 100 per cent of people living in acute poverty. There are some 110 bidi units in Auragabad and Dhulian in the district. Small wonder, the likes of Pataka Bidi Co, Siva Bidi Co, Howrah Bidi Co and Mother India Bidi Co have caused quite a stir in the local bidi market. They supply raw materials like tendu leaf, thread and tobacco through munshis to villagers and procure the finished product from them.

A Reserve Bank of India (RBI) study ~ Financial Inclusion in India: A Case Study of West Bengal ~ says it is normally observed that mostly the villagers take loan from the local moneylenders for food. It can be observed that around 63.4 per cent of the people pay interest to the moneylenders in Murshidabad.
Mr Pranab Mukherjee had held a meeting with senior executives of Sidbi, Nabard, district authorities and NGOs to find out alternate income sources for bidi workers.
However, in the absence of any major large-scale industry in Murshidabad, except the NTPC plant at Farakka, it seems to be a long draw. The other viable alternatives are silk cultivation, handloom and horticulture. While weavers, too, suffer from lack of credit facilities, shortage of processing plants take the sheen out of horticulture. It is also seen that a large number of people come to the newly-launched branches to borrow money to repay the moneylenders. With the rise in number of branches, the competition between banks has proven a boon for the locals. The banks, of course, have to battle difficulties, as there is a rise in non-performing assets. Local borrowers, especially small ones, are not in the habit of repaying. Some branches have NPAs to the extent of 13-17 per cent,” a bank official in Jangipur said.

Soma basu

Soma Basu

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