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A divine intervention

The Archbishop of Canterbury intends to use the Church’s moneyto save the poor from loansharks. Would any head of such a religious foundation in India follow suit? Farrukh Dhondy writes.

columns Updated: Aug 22, 2013 07:29 IST

Debt relief for the agricultural sector, untrammelled by corruption through false claims and kickbacks for the managers, will be a major plank in the next Indian elections. As yet there is no agreement from assessors on its effectiveness. Has the number of farmer suicides really fallen? Is even one acceptable?

There aren’t any recorded debt-suicides in Britain, but the problem of debt has recently come to the fore.

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, used to be an oil company executive before he was called by God to the priesthood in 1989.

Archbishops of Canterbury are appointed ceremonially by the monarch and in practice by the prime minister of the time. There are no laid down criteria for the appointment of the Archbishop, just as there are none for the election of a Pope but it is fairly certain that British Prime Minister David Cameron and his advisers chose a man from a capitalist background who they calculated would understand their policies. Besides, Welby is an Old Etonian, as is Cameron and several ministers of the Tory party.

Welby has proved something of a disappointment to Cameron as he, like his predecessor Rowan Williams, seems to be on the side of the poor and the meek and has spoken critically of government policies which victimise these.

At present, he is also engaged in a move which may remind Christians and others of the act of Jesus in driving out the usurers from the temple of God.

Allow me to explain: there are money-lending organisations in Britain called pay-day loan companies which offer loans to the gullible, unsuspecting or desperate poor at incredibly high rates of interest. Anecdotal evidence imputes to one company a rate of 100% and more a month! The borrowers in the majority of cases find it impossible to repay the loans with interest and the companies foreclose on their assets, throwing them out of their homes or attaching their property and wages or welfare payments for years on end so as to reduce them to a form of modern slavery.

The practice reminds one of the sad Hindi movies in which the lascivious village moneylender would foreclose on the pretty and sweating village widow who couldn’t repay a loan she had inherited or was forced into taking out for the sake of her suffering and hungry children.

The good Archbishop witnessed the suffering caused to the poor of Britain through the operations of these companies, declared himself against their ethics and went a bold step further. He announced his intention to invest the church’s considerable wealth in establishing rival pay-day-loan institutions or banks which would lend money to the desperate and needy at very low or even at no interest. His experience of dealing in capital and banking has no doubt informed such a proposal.

Immediately after his announcement, in which he specifically criticised a loan company called Wonga (a slang word originating in Black British argot meaning ‘money’), two facts emerged as a result of press investigation. The first was that Jonathan Luff, one of David Cameron’s advisers had quit Downing Street last year to work as a senior executive at Wonga. The second was that some of the Church of England’s £7.5 billion investment portfolio contained shares in — yes— Wonga!

This was a temporary embarrassment to Welby who said he knew nothing about it and would institute an immediate investigation into pulling the Church’s money out of unethical companies. His statement has implications beyond withdrawing from investing in and profiting from Wonga. The Church of England has shares in Vodafone, in the chemical multinational GlaxoSmithKline and in HSBC, all three of which have been variously convicted of tax avoidance, fraud, bribery and moneylaundering. Will the Archbishop’s definition of unethical extend to these?

As they say: Watch this space! Obviously Welby’s intention of starting a bank which will offer cheap or non-profit loans to the destitute is a gesture which will relieve suffering. Britain needs some of that church money invested in enterprise. Welby or indeed Cameron’s government could take a hint from Indira Gandhi whose policy of lending money without accessible collateral to, especially, Punjabi farmers to buy tractors and seeds ushered in the Green Revolution.

What Welby proposes should extend itself from helping the destitute and pattern itself to be Britain equivalent of the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, which lends money to small entrepreneurs.

Hinduism, Islam and other Indian religions have no established church but they certainly have religious trusts to which the over-rich contribute self-glorification money. Would any head of such a religious foundation consider using the money in the way Welby intends? In India, debt-relief is seen as a government business and charity — but not no-interest loans — and is restricted to one’s co-religionists.

When borrowers default on the pay day loans they are often visited by very demanding individuals who make them offers they can’t refuse. The Church, as the Archbishop realises, can’t, in all conscience, use such tactics. Welby’s new bank will just have to pray that its loans are repaid and, of course, the punishment for defaulters is that they will go to hell.

Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London
The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Aug 21, 2013 21:37 IST