The bitter realities behind Hingurakgoda satyagraha

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For the women and their allies gathered at the protest, this action is the latest in a series of attempts to get successive governments to recognize their suffering and come up with lasting solutions to the debt. They protested and waited for the relief promised by the previous government led by the United National Front (UNF), only to find that a majority of them were not eligible for the debt cancellation that had been offered. in 2018. They voted for politicians in the current government only because they promised to write off debts, only to then turn a blind eye to satyagraha and its demands.

Women from Polonnaruwa, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya are regularly gathered during the demonstration. Women from Anuradhapura, Matale, Hanguranketha, Jaffna, Trincomalee, Kandy and Nuwara Eliya joined in batches on her journey, indicating the spread of the debt problem across the country. Isle.

On March 8, International Women’s Day, in a small tent at the Polonnaruwa Raja Sabha Mandapaya, women sat down to start a satyagraha against the microfinance debt that crippled rural economies and left them defenseless.

Targeting of women by financial companies

The women here believe that the companies are specifically targeting women for these loans, selling them fairy tales. Because they better understand the needs of the household and will not hesitate to borrow money to buy items or contribute to family income, lenders turn to rural women. They persuade them that the loans are fair and repayment is fairly straightforward, often having them sign blank pieces of paper or documents in English that the women do not understand.

These promises quickly collapse as women find themselves paying up to three times what they borrowed in the original loan. A woman participating in the protest showed a notice that she had been sent by the company; for a loan of Rs. 150,000, she was now repaying up to Rs. 500,000.

Microfinance companies, some of which are unregistered and unregulated, are arbitrarily increasing interest
Interest
An amount paid as remuneration for an investment or received by a lender. Interest is calculated on the amount of capital invested or borrowed, the duration of the transaction and the rate that has been set.
amounts between payments. Therefore, even if they inform some women of the total amount of their payment, the notices and letters that the women receive a few months later carry numbers that they are absolutely unable to pay.

Inhumane debt collection

The Sinhala word that many women use to refer to debt collectors who visit their homes and villages is amaanushika (inhuman). The way collectors intimidate and exercise their power over these women prompts many to take desperate action.

Collectors indeed invade villages and houses in search of debtors. If the parents are away from home and have payments due, the collectors will harass their children. When the parents return, they will rebuke them in front of the children. The men (those who participated in the protest say the debt collectors are still men) will arrive in the village at dawn. In cases where many villagers owe them money, they will sit in a public space so that people cannot go about their daily business without overtaking them. It weighs on the emotions of those who cannot pay.

When targeting individual homes, collectors will arrive and sit in the garden. In the afternoon, they will move into the house and later in the evening, if the person still has not paid, will sometimes go to the bedroom, especially to intimidate women and demand sexual favors to allow for a delay. payment.

The practice of repayment and the degree to which microfinance is rooted in the rural economy affects all aspects of women’s lives. As an area with a high frequency of chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology (CKDu), patients are eligible for a relief payment that they would usually use for treatment. Families affected by debt find themselves making that payment in full to the debt collector and forgoing the medical care they need. Women who go to court to claim their monthly child support, find debt collectors waiting outside courthouses to claim their payment because they know they just received money.

Some villagers hunt collectors because they don’t want to pay more than they already have. In other cases, a villager will tell the collector to help with the collection, take the list of debtors and amounts owed, and casually drop it after the collector leaves. On the other hand, entire villages went into hiding to prevent debt collectors from leaving their homes and hiding in the jungle for days on end. Others who are unable to pay but are also terrified of going to court are among those who commit suicide.

There are women present at the protest who are harassed by debt collectors for not being able to make payments of Rs. 6,000. Barely making ends meet for their families and often starving they do. still do not have enough to pay an amount that many would not hesitate to spend in one transaction.

Demonstration experiences for women

Choose to participate in the satyagraha, especially for women who do this for long periods of time at a time, carries several costs. For some, coming to satyagraha means taking their children with them and having to watch them until the little ones fall asleep inside the protest tent. For others, their older children, who take important national exams, study and stay home alone, and their mothers say they feel bad not to be with them. These women make trips between their home villages and the protest site every few days. Bus costs are much higher than they can spare, and repeatedly traveling on public transport during the pandemic puts them at a different kind of risk.

Many women struggling with debt have already felt like outcasts in their villages, as the practices of collectors ensure that shame surrounds an individual. They fear that their children will also be ashamed of their mother’s debt, especially when left alone.

Many women worry that their husbands do not like the fact that they witness actions like this. These women will come to the protest site as they know the husbands are working and will return home before they return. For women whose husbands benefit from the loans they have taken out without contributing to the repayment, this choice is clear: they both bear the burden and engage in the fight alone. For those whose husbands help them pay off the growing debt, they feel difficult to go it alone.

Inadequate solutions

Several signs at the protest tent read ” Samurdhi “. These refer to the plans that the government has put in place to provide small loans. interest rate
Interest rate
When A lends money to B, B repays the amount lent by A (the capital) as well as an additional sum called interest, so that A has an interest in agreeing to this financial transaction. Interest is determined by the interest rate, which can be high or low. To take a very simple example: if A borrows $ 100 million for 10 years at a fixed interest rate of 5%, in the first year he will repay one-tenth of the capital initially borrowed ($ 10 million) plus 5% of the capital. owed, or $ 5 million, for a total of $ 15 million. In the second year, it will repay 10% of the borrowed capital again, but the 5% only applies to the remaining $ 90 million still due, or $ 4.5 million, for a total of $ 14.5 million. of dollars. And so on, until the tenth year he pays back the last 10 million dollars, plus 5% of the remaining 10 million dollars, or 0.5 million dollars, for a total of 10.5 million dollars. Over 10 years, the total amount repaid will be $ 127.5 million. The repayment of capital is generally not made in equal installments. In the early years, the repayment mainly concerns the interest, and the share of the repaid capital increases over the years. In this case, if the repayments are interrupted, the outstanding capital is higher …

The nominal interest rate is the rate at which the loan is taken out. The real interest rate is the nominal rate less the rate of inflation. via the Samurdhi banks so that the people can settle the debt. The women who protest see it as a bad solution. first of all, Samurdhi the banks and the collections are made up of people’s savings, so the money is not given to the government. Second, many of those who are in debt have taken out loans to pay off other loans, and they do not see loans – even at a lower interest rate – as a solution.

There has been temporary relief in reimbursements for six months over the past year (in 2020) due to Covid-19, a measure imposed by the government. However, companies expected people to pay back the full amount accrued, as well as punitive interest, in some cases. All this at a time when those in debt were out of work due to movement restrictions that prevented them from accessing daily paid work, and when harvests had also failed.

For those who participated in the protest, as they paid back the initial amounts they took and more, a full debt write-off is their first and greatest demand. Moreover, citizens do not want the state to bail out finance companies as this would come from taxpayer money which could be used for much better public use than subsidizing multi-million rupee finance companies.

The popular struggle is best exemplified in protest songs written by MK Jayatissa, a farmer from Kaudulla who was the first to mobilize people around the issue of predatory microfinance debt. The rhymes explain how the cycle of endless loans and repayments means villagers don’t even have the money to buy poison with which to commit suicide. They ask who are the richest people in Sri Lanka, and the answer is that it is a thief who got rich by destroying villages thanks to microfinance. Perhaps most obsessive is the indictment of the government’s inaction on the issue of the debt and the lives it has cost so far; “200 were sacrificed – haven’t you taken enough of our blood? How many more sacrifices are needed to cancel the debt, Sir Gota? “

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