Loan sharks prey on people affected by disasters in Bangladesh

Emran Hossain | Published: 00:21, Apr 20,2019 | Updated: 00:24, Apr 20,2019

 
 

Mohammad Babul of Matibhanga, Kuakata, Patuakhali, could not come out of the debt in which he was trapped 12 years back after Sidr lashed the Bangladesh coast.
In 2007, Sidr destroyed his home, goat farm and every possession he had and suddenly Babul had no money to rebuild his shelter and goat farm just like thousands of others in the coastal districts of Patuakhali, Barguna and Jhalakathi.
But in disaster prone Bangladesh floods, erosions and landslides are considered much more devastating as they make more people shelter less each year.
Losing everything, the affected people borrow from money lending mahajans , micro credit institutions as well as select NGOs in money lending business at high rates of interest to rebuild their life just like drowning men catching at a straw.
Economist MM Akash said that the disaster affected people get the loans from this group only after mortgaging their crop land or other properties or the lion share in their next crop to be trapped in debt and poverty cycle permanently.
Akash said that these people get further marginalized.
The constant pressure to repay forces these people to borrow again and again from similar other sources pushing them deeper into the debt trap, he said.
Akash called it quite unfortunate that many in Bangladesh accumulated wealth by exploiting disaster affected poor people.
The government’s banking policy never lent service to the needy and vulnerable people of Bangladesh.
Isolated efforts to help growers with soft loans proved totally counterproductive.
A study report released in March reveals that the affected families spent $three billion in fiscal 2015-16 for post natural disaster reconstruction.
Jointly conducted by the International Institute for Environment and Development and Kingston University, London, the study reveals that in Bangladesh the aver age disaster related expenditure per family stood at Tk 6,609, equivalent to $78.
The per household expenditure however was the highest in the cyclone hit districts like Barishal and Chittagong, close to Tk 9,000 equivalent to $106, according to the study.
During the period under the study, the government spent only $1.4 billion, or $37 equivalent to Tk 3,092 per household on an average.
Donors spent $83 million, or less than $two or Tk 168 per household on an average.
‘The poor in Bangladesh are the biggest climate financier,’ IIED chief economist Paul Steele, the co-author of the study, told New Age.
‘The findings lead to a very serious question: What is the source of this huge climate investment?’ said Paul.
Babul already sold half of his 15-decimal land as he could not earn enough to support his family of five after repaying weekly instalments to four micro credit lenders.
Still he could not fully repay the loans that were supposed to be repaid in one year.
‘I could not do any better,’ said Babul, who received only Tk 5,000 as emergency help from the government after Sidr.
Babul’s financial distress would worsen with Bangladesh bracing for more disasters due to climate change effects.
Climate experts warned that 40 million people were living in direct disaster risks in Bangladesh, considered as among the most climate vulnerable places on earth.
Just last week farmers in the north-eastern districts of Bangladesh were advised to harvest their boro rice, their lone annual crop, out of fears that flash floods could destroy their crop in the last week of April for the 2nd time in three years.
In 2017, flash floods destroyed standing the boro rice crop on 1,200 sq km in the same region considered to be Bangladesh’s grain basket.
‘I see only darkness ahead,’ said Obaidul Haque, a farmer of Dakkhin Sunamganj, who said his rice would start ripening by April end.
‘If I harvest now I have to reap mostly green rice having no value,’ he said.
Obaid is already defaulted in repaying his weekly instalment of Tk 15,000 to micro credit lenders from whom he had borrowed after his crop was destroyed by flash floods in 2017.
Agricultural economists and researchers repeatedly asked the government to introduce crop insurance to protect farmers from the recurring floods and other natural disasters.
Even in normal years, the landless and farmers having small holdings need to borrow from Mahajans and micro credit lenders for buying seeds, tilling the cropland or irrigating their crops.
‘Natural disasters deal serious blows to these vulnerable people,’ said Khalid Hasan, assistant professor at the Institute of Disaster Management and Vulnerability Studies, Dhaka University.
‘The disaster pushes the farmers into a vicious cycle of debt,’ he said.
Kingston University’s economics teacher Shaikh Eskander released in March the findings of a joint study shedding light on how life of the poor was trapped in debt in Bangladesh.
Mahajans are the biggest source of borrowing for the poor though charge 24 per cent of interest, he said.
The second biggest group of lenders, the NGOs, charge 15 per cent of interest, he said.
The study found that to cope with the high interest about seven per cent people were compelled to either sell or mortgage their assets in 2015-16.
About five per cent of the borrowers reduced their food consumption or started to consume low quality food, he said.
Some took their children out of schools or put them on foster care or sent them to work as domestic help far from their homes.
In search of better income many left home, some of them permanently, while some switched jobs or shifted homes to reduce expenses to cope with increasing disaster expenditure, he said.
The Department of Disaster Management however does not agree that people needed to borrow to come out of the disaster effects.
‘Government stands by people as long as they need help following disasters,’ said the DDM director general Abu Syed Mohammad Hashim.
But a 2008 study, conducted on 3,481 Sidr affected people in 140 villages by Dhaka University’s Centre for Microfinance and Development, revealed that the affected people borrowed from informal financial sector to rebuild life.
Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies executive director A Atiq Rahman said that the full story of disaster affected people remains unknown and the losses can never be measured in money terms.
‘A home is not only a structure and money. It is a place where people invest not only money but also their love and emotion,’ said Atiq.
‘It’s not so easy to measure the emotional cost and the sufferings caused by a disaster,’ he said.

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