Madhya Pradesh mass suicide: How predatory lending wiped out a family
It was not sudden. For weeks, the family of five, humiliated and harassed, looked for a way out. On November 19, they went to the Bhopal police, and all they asked for was time. They were reassured, but the next day, the moneylenders were back. They tried to sell their property but there were no buyers. There was no escape.
They began talking about options, and there seemed to be only one left. Not everyone had to make that choice, the elders tried to convince the two daughters. But if that unthinkable route had to be taken, it would be all of them, the girls argued. On November 25, the family began writing. Together, all five of them, a 47-year-old auto parts shopkeeper, his 67-year-old mother, his 45-year-old wife who ran a grocery shop, and their two daughters, 19 and 16, wrote one long note. Then the two young girls wrote separate letters. The next day, they began by poisoning the two family dogs. Then every single one of them consumed the poison themselves. They were rushed to hospital by neighbours, but in three days, the lives of an entire family had been snuffed out, shocking chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, and bringing back into focus the long-standing issue of predatory lending. Their final words in the 13-page note: “Hum buzdil nahi, majboor hain” (we’re not cowards, we’re helpless).
It was the 45-year-old mother of two that died the last, on November 28. For three days, she told police about the family’s ordeal in what is legally now a dying declaration. The family had two business establishments and no trouble till 2020, but then came Covid. Lockdown meant no income, and expenses and home loans were mounting. In 2020, without telling her husband, the woman took a ₹2 lakh loan from a money lender, Babli Dubey. A few months later, the fees of their two daughters, one a class 10 student in a private school, the other a BTech student in a private engineering college, needed to be paid. She took another loan of ₹1.5 lakh.
From June this year, people began turning up at the house, asking for the money to be returned with interest. The husband knew by now, and the suicide notes detail almost daily harassment and abuse, even threats that the two girls would be abducted. The family paid ₹80,000 but wanted time for the rest. So on November 19, they went to the Piplani police station, and asked them to convince Babli Dubey to give them more time. The police station incharge Ajay Nayar told HT that they didn’t characterise it as harassment at the time, and filed no complaint, but just wanted him to speak to Dubey, which he did. The suicide note however said that they received no help from the police, or their relatives. Ten days later, they were all dead.
Additional Superintendent of Police Rajesh Bhadoria said that four people including Babli Dubey have been booked under section 306 (abetment of suicide) of the Indian Penal Code and the Money Lenders Act. They have since been arrested and sent to jail.
But what killed the family, Bhadoria said, was not money, but the public humiliation. “They owned property worth ₹1.5 crore in Bhopal and a plot in Chennai but the family was hurt and depressed because of the public humiliation. They said that their neighbours had begun to mock them because of the daily fracas, and saw them as criminals. This was not something the family could bear,” Bhadoria said.
AN OLD PROBLEM
The mass suicide is a grim reminder of the long-standing problems of predatory lending that persist in India, with families trapped in a cycle of deep financial distress, even more glaring now with the economic effects of Covid, seeking out quick loans from non-institutional sources.
In 2019, the All India Debt and Investment Survey, carried out by the Union Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation said 10.2% of rural Indian households, and 4.9% of urban households were indebted to non-institutional credit agencies. Overall, the survey said the “incident of indebtedness” was about 35% in rural India and 22.4% in urban India.
On the ground, what this means is a constantly rising cycle of debt. A moneylender from Bhopal told HT that usually, loans are given at a 10% interest rate. “The problem is that when we seek the amount back, we want it whole, with the additional interest amount, because otherwise it encourages default. So, the added stipulation we add is that if the money isn’t paid in the stipulated period, the interest doubles,” the moneylender said.
For instance, two days after the family of five committed suicide, 40 kilometres away from the state capital in the district of Sehore, a fruit vendor killed himself. His son said that several years ago, he had taken a loan of ₹50,000. “Over the years, he paid as much as five lakh rupees, but the loan never seemed to end. The two moneylenders always wanted more, would call, abuse and threaten him and said they would take over our home. So, on November 28, he jumped in front of a train and killed himself,” the son said.
GOVERNMENT ACTION AND WHY IT HASN’T WORKED
In Madhya Pradesh , it is not as if these issues have not caught government attention before. In July 2020, Chouhan announced amendments to the Madhya Pradesh Money Lenders Act, 1934, which he said would help in stopping extortion and harassment.
In amendments introduced on September 26, 2020, the state government added two sections, the first of which barred moneylenders from charging interest other than a rate notified by the state government from time to time. The second mandated that no loans advanced to a person by a moneylender that were not registered with the state government under the law would be recoverable.
Introducing the amendments, the state revenue minister Govind Singh Rajput said, “It has been seen that some unregistered money lenders are running such businesses in different areas of the state, and therefore it was decided to fix the upper rate of interest. If there is contravention of this, the loan will not be recoverable.”
While the state government has mandated 15% simple interest per annum as the acceptable interest rate, a year after the law was amended, state government officials said that they were yet to collate any data on the total number of registered moneylenders, or the amount of loans given in the state.
“Moneylenders are meant to be registered by urban local bodies by filling a form. After registration, they can lend money at the maximum rate of 15% per annum simple interest but there is no system that has been created to monitor this. This is why there have been no raids or checking, and action is mostly taken only when there is a police complaint,” said a senior officer of the revenue department, requesting anonymity.
Domain experts said that the lack of teeth in the law is another reason why there has been no deterrence. Rakesh Malviya, an activist who works in the social welfare sector in the state said, “Even after a year the law has left no impact. The MP Protection of Debtors Act only has provision of punishment of up to three months in prison.”
Vibhuti Jha, a lawyer and activist who has worked in tribal areas for several years, said that the moneylending crisis is particularly acute in districts such as Anuppur, Shahdol, Jhabua, Mandla, Dindori and Barwani. “In most cases in these districts, indeed in the state, when farmers commit suicide, it is because they are being harassed. This is because in rural areas, once the crop fails, there is no other source of income to fall back on, and there is no knowledge of this law,” Jha said. The Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India report 2020 said that 735 farmers and farm labourers committed suicide in Madhya Pradesh in 2020, and 541 killed themselves in 2019.
WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW
The mass suicide prompted an immediate reaction from the Chouhan government. Calling the deaths “heartbreaking and unbearable”, the CM called for a high-level meeting on November 27 which included chief secretary Iqbal Singh Bains, additional chief secretary Rajesh Rajora and DGP Vivek Johri. He said that there was need for a campaign to curb such harassment, and asked the departments concerned to take “coordinated and concrete action”.
Principal secretary to the chief minister and revenue department secretary, Manish Rastogi, said, “It is true that the state government did not have a database but now we are developing a system to strengthen the imposition of the Act. From monitoring to inspection, revenue officers will now update data every month.”
The home department has also issued instructions to the police to create awareness of the law in place, and to inform police if there are any violations. Home minister Narottam Mishra said, “All district police officers have been asked to take strict action against moneylenders and also create awareness among people to register criminal cases if there is illegality in lending.”
In his comments after the meeting, Chouhan pointed to a strengthening of the laws governing money lending among tribal people through the MP Anusuchit Janjati Sahukar Viniyam (Amendment) Act, 2021. Under the regulation, the punishment for lending money to tribal people without registration was increased from imprisonment of six months to two years, while the financial penalty was raised to ₹1 lakh from ₹1,000.
In Madhya Pradesh’s tribal areas though, there is little hope that there will truly be change. In August 2020, a 40-year-old tribal man from Awali village of Barwani district killed himself after taking a loan of ₹1.3 lakh from two moneylenders. “This was at an interest of 5% per month. He paid them ₹3.20 lakh by selling land, but they wanted ₹8 lakh. They misbehaved with him, humiliated him in full public view. He couldn’t bear the pain, and killed himself in August,” his brother told HT. The family didn’t know of the existence of the law at the time, and even today, there is little awareness in the village.
The brother added: “Our only hope is that the police act swiftly when someone is on the verge of suicide or death. But honestly, nothing has changed. We still take money from lenders here to make ends meet. What law can prevent this? Our whole lives depend on these loans, circle around them, and then depend on them again.”
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