The report “Small loans add up to lethal debts” (Feb. 26) on debtor suicides linked to microfinance companies was heart-rending. That the poor, who believe that small loans can improve their living, become victims of the companies run by so-called financial wizards, is unfortunate. It appears that the companies are no better than the mahajans of pre-independence days.
Micro-finance institutions, established to provide small loans to the disadvantaged sections, have been lured into the path of becoming for-profit organisations. Manmohanomics and Monteknology have played a crucial role in making India a global market in which retailers and middlemen become millionaires while food producers are left to kill themselves.
The patrons of liberalisation have a lot to explain to the bereaved families of those who have committed suicide in the past two decades because of their inability to repay debts.
The report is excellent but the readers should know the brighter side of microfinance too. Because of the Andhra Pradesh fiasco, institutional resources to MFIs virtually stopped for almost a year. The industry has just come out of the crisis, with the RBI intervening to soothe the market and funders realising that it is safe to lend to MFIs which operate in credit-ready markets initially developed by them. The borrowers, in repeat cycles of borrowing, see this transparent mechanism as a far cheaper and desirable option. Many MFIs graduated from the initial mission of empowerment and social development to become lenders. The RBI has now virtually capped the market by indirect regulation.
Why did Rajyam, mentioned in the article, borrow Rs.1.18 lakh? If she needed the money to invest in her livelihood activity, it points to the failure of the banking system. It is precisely this unfilled space in the rural credit market that the MFIs have occupied.
Borrowing from eight different MFIs indicates a sad feature of an unhealthy microfinance market. Rajyam borrowed beyond her capacity — a situation akin to the state of the urban credit card industry three years ago. In the case of Rajyam and many others, the over-enthusiastic “profit-only” MFIs were responsible for dumping money in unprepared markets.
The article should teach the nation what should not be done. But, let us not conclude that all microfinance is bad.