Batticaloa has changed. Terror free from 2009, this township has dramatically transformed itself from a battlefield to a famed tourist hotspot over the last six years. New concrete roads have replaced the battered gravel paths and scooters have outdone bicycles as the mode of transport on new roads, especially by the womenfolk of the city. The needs and wants of the people have become complex when glancing back to a decade back.
The highlight of the city is no longer the singing fish, but loan sharks who follow women on scooters everywhere they go and lure them into getting loans which they cannot afford to repay. These micro finance loan sharks armed with hard cash and expressing convincing promises on flexibility of re-payment schemes and low interest rates have evidently and effectively replaced the armed men from back in the day whose knock of terror sent women hiding behind locked doors out of nothing, but mortal fear.
The perception of the people in Batticaloa in relation to micro finance companies however was marred to this degree only after the suicide of a mother of three in 2014, out of embarrassment. She was publicly humiliated by a debt collector. Though the incident did not receive much publicity in the media, the tragedy made women think twice on obtaining loans. However, desperate moments demand desperate measures in life.
“Most of these women take these loans quite ignorantly. They are not illiterate, but naïve. These micro finance companies do not educate the women before lending. The women do not properly ask for the terms and conditions. When in trouble, they say; ‘they made us sign some documents in English…’, said Somanathi Sivasubramaniam, Coordinator of the Women’s Development Forum in Batticaloa.
Asked what made women take these loans and what they do with the money, Ms. Sivasubramaniam said most of the loans were used for day-to-day consumption and/or to pay a previous loan taken from a different micro finance company.
According to her, it is a common trend among the women in the area: taking one loan to settle another. This has become possible because the micro finance companies demand minimal documentation irrespective of the re-payment ability of the recipient. “Sometimes when one woman is unable to repay, the friends in the group who sign up as her guarantors have to pay the money and this has led to a lot of problems in the past affecting peace within the communities,” she explained.
Asked about steps to educate the women to combat the situation, the Coordinator said despite instructions through the forum, they still fall victims to loan sharks as the latter paints a rosy picture to lure them.
The Development Forum has lent money to its members starting from Rs.500 up to Rs.50,000 from 2010 depending on requirements based on the ability to repay.
“Some women take these loans to educate their children. Some give their children in marriage. Reasons may vary and they borrow to assist the families,” she concluded.
It is however ironic those mothers do borrow money to make lives better for their children, but when unable to repay and when debtors knock on the door, they send their children to answer to rather lie: “Amma vittila illei” (mother not at home).