P.V. Srividya

NAGAPATTINAM: Banks are exercising tacit moratorium on loan grants to fisherfolk across coastal villages. With the threat of loans granted to fisherfolk post-tsunami turning into bad debts, banks have developed cold feet.

Nagapattinam witnessed loan grants of up to Rs.35 crore under the Rajiv Gandhi Rehabilitation Package post-tsunami. This entailed loans for 542 mechanised boats with a 35 per cent subsidy component. Today, none of the mechanised boat owners have remitted their dues.

Banks contend that despite profits, mechanised boat owners were wilful defaulters. It is also alleged that panchayathars of some fishing habitations have restrained the willing persons from remitting their loan dues. However, fisherfolk were pitching for loan waivers on lines of agricultural loans. “Now, banks do not lend even with security,” says Chitravelu, Panchayathar of Nambiyar Nagar habitation.

The real issue is that of livelihood support through banks to the indigent among fisherfolk. With stray exceptions, banks are wary of lending. Some sources say, banks cannot be blamed and the issue has been politicised. “Banks pump in lakhs in to women’s SHGs without collateral security. It is about trust and bankers have lost trust on fisherfolk,” says a lead bank official.

Though SHGs among fisherfolk can avail loans, individual loans are remote. Caught in this battle are others, especially women thriving on subsistence fishing. These hurdles are also breakwaters for girls from fishing community to access higher education. “Two meritorious students were denied educational loans last year despite the Collector’s request. The community funded the first year of engineering education for the girl concerned,” says R.M.P. Rajendiran Nattar district president of All India National Fishermen Trade Union. The entire community stands vilified due to some wilful defaulters, he says.

Stray instances of livelihood and educational assistance hinge on personal benevolence and ‘risk taking’ ability of individual bankers at the helm. “Recently, we loaned Rs.40,000 to secure a fisherwoman from hypothecation of goods,” said a State Bank of India official.

Department records place outstanding loans of fisherfolk in Tamil Nadu at Rs.62 crore. “This can be written off than to let it hold to ransom fisherfolk’s development,” says the General Manager of a leading bank. According to him, with no ancillary industries in Nagapattinam, fishing is a pertinent field for development. Complete cessation of vessel-building loans has halted this. Banks cannot afford cynicism, he says. “Banking practice should be restored and not politicised,” says A. Thanigachalam, Lead Bank Manager, Nagapattinam.

This issue is a pet peeve between bankers and officials in most of the district level review meetings of banks across coastal districts. Fisherfolk’s grievances are real and across districts they are in moneylender’s clutches, Fisheries officials say. They believe government should undo this ‘politics’. Today, fisherfolk can ‘rightfully’ avail loans only if outstanding loans are settled. This stand-off has snapped livelihood-sustaining banking channel for the fisherfolk, threatening to stall a community’s progress.