The Fatal default

Oct 14, 2007

It was just a few days ago that Prakash Sarvankar’s death brought to light the strong arm techniques used by bank recovery agents. It was a case where heavy losses in business led to the default and untimely death of Sarvankar. But since then, Mumbai newspapers have invariably published stories of some or the other person facing a similar situation. After Sarvankar, people have come forward to highlight their problems. Organisations, very much like consumer rights NGOs have been formed, to protect the rights of the consumers; mostly by local leaders and political aspirants. And that is where the problem begins. Like all initiatives by politically active people, these organisations are trying to sell their associations by “bringing to light” the plight of some of their members. Just a few days ago, one such organisation invited all media houses from the city to consider the plight of a man who had attempted suicide for the third time, because of harassment by bank recovery agents.

The third time? My cameraperson was all sympathy for him as we went to get the details. We were greeted by this local politician who had taken up the cause of credit card holders. A nice cause and I am sure he was somewhat committed too. He guided us to this guy. A man in his late thirtees, he was lying in the hospital bed. Didn’t seem to weak, as he had probably reasonably recovered before he agreed to talk to the media. So here were all of us, press photographers, print journalists, camera crews waiting to hear his version of recovery agent torture and thinking like everyone else that something should be done to curb this menace. We inquired after his health, asked him the immediate provocation for the third attempt to suicide. He replied that recovery agents were calling up his office at all odd times, using foul language, threatening him and in fact his boss had once told him that frequent calls spoiled the work atmosphere. Okay what about the first two times? Then came the real story. This guy had credit cards from four different banks (not a big deal some of my friends tell me, but surely in this case because he was not a very well to do person in the first place). And why did he need them, was there any pressing need like buying a home, or marrying off a daughter or anything? Paisa toh aise hi zarurat lagta hai na madam. Main kuch doston ko bhi paisa diya (he almost said on credit) aur bas aise hi kuch roz ka zarurat tha he said. And at this point, the local leader pitched in apni beti ko fashion designing ka padhaai karane ke liye diya tha. (Then why isn’t he saying it? All the journalists gathered there silently asked each other). Bank waale hi mere peechey pade the bole yeh card le lo woh card le lo. Aur maine le liya aur saare use bhi kar liye. Main teen mahine pehale tak saare bhar bhi raha tha. Par phir bhi mera balance utna hi outstanding tha. (Because in credit cards, the minimum payment goes to interest and not to the principal). Tab mujhe laga ki yeh mujhse nahin ho sakta isliye pehla attempt kiya. And he went on to explain what combination of sleeping pills and pesticides he took each time, at what date and time. Every detail in place. But no police case registered ever (that’s a different story altogether I guess). And after some more questioning all of us left him at the hospital.

But journalists when they congregate always dissect what they saw and heard. And so on the way back, started the discussion. A print guy was the first to joke ‘Well whenever all the media in town is called remember it is a plant.’ And that was the distinct feeling everyone of us got. Despite the fact that the guy attempted suicide thrice, we couldnt sympathise with him, forget empathise; because each time it was a different bank card that he had defaulted on. Had he vowed not to learn a lesson? The only truth we all agreed was the banks enticing him with offers because the modus operandi was the same as narrated by all those who had alleged harassment. But the others had one loan probably taken out of sheer need; while here was this man who had probably loaned out his loan to some others and was now suffering because they defaulted. Here was a clear case of biting off more than one could chew. And the three attempts, cynical as it may sound, most of the people present there concluded that enrolling with this NGO was probably his way of getting the banks off his back altogether.

The problem here is that there are only few genuine needy people, who get into debt traps. Mostly though, it is a case of pure avarice, the dream of living beyond one’s means. Yes, one must aspire to a better lifestyle, but one should do something concrete about it. Generations before us have also gone through the same trials and tribulations of running a family and managing aspirations and most of them are financially more credible than our generation would end up to be. All because they adhered to the simple logic in the Hindi saying ‘Jitni chadar utne hi pair failao’.

Sarvankar’s case was one of need. He was a victim. But out of every five cases that got reported after his death, atleast 3 were cases of pure greed and thereby carelessness, leading the people into a debt trap. Either way, the conduct of the banks cannot and should not be justified. But Sarvankar’s case should not become an excuse for encouraging cases of each and every defaulter who refuses to pay. That would probably be the biggest disservice to his cause and would only give the banks another excuse to evade legal control.



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