Preetha and Shaji had been struggling to save their house, ever since they acted as surety for someone else's bank loan.

Forced eviction of a Kerala couple by bank rekindles fight against Sarfaesi Act
news Human Interest Saturday, July 14, 2018 - 16:36

Five days ago, a couple in Ernakulam poured petrol over themselves, as did several others on the street, threatening to set themselves on fire unless the bank officials who came to seize the duo’s property left. This protest by Preetha and her husband, Shaji, from Pathadipalam in Ernakulam district, has once again rekindled the debate around Securitisation and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Security Interest Act, known as Sarfaesi Act. 

Because of the protest, the policemen and bank officials who came to confiscate the house had to leave. Preetha and Shaji, whose only fault was to stand as guarantors for a loan taken by a relative a decade ago, have been allowed to live in their house for a few more days, until the bank officials come again.

While the couple got temporary relief, the Kalamassery police have arrested members of the Anti-Sarfaesi People's Movement and other protestors who had rallied behind the couple and protested with them.

Four people were arrested on their way home – Vijeesh, Jayakumar, Prakash, Nicey. The police claim that public property was damaged due to a fire that broke out on the street when everyone poured petrol over themselves and on the street.

Nicey, the only woman in that group, was allowed to leave later. The others were remanded.

The police have also arrested VC Jenny and PJ Manuel, both officer bearers of the Anti-Sarfaesi People's Movement.

The Sarfaesi Act (2002), dubbed as draconian by many, gives banks and financial institutions the autonomy to recover loans from defaulters, without assistance or interference from the court. Groups in Kerala have been resisting the Act for a few years now, following several cases of unfair evictions and attachment of property.

(Protest led by Jenny)

TT Sreekumar, professor at EFL University, wrote on Facebook, “Protest the arrest and persecution of anti-SARFAESI Activists in Kerala. This Draconian law, mostly used against the poor and the dispossessed allows ruthless financial institutions to auction residential or commercial properties to recover loans at whim. In Kerala, the arrests follow people's support for a woman whose property has been attached by the Bank and auctioned for pittance. Shaji Kannan, VC Jenny and PG Manuel were arrested from their homes after midnight. Kerala Police is trying to terrorize common people and intimidate activists. The arrested activists should be released immediately.”

When asked, a policeman at the Kalamassery police station said that two activists were arrested – Manuel and Jenny – not three, as believed.

“It was for ganging-up and damaging public property, and attempting to commit suicide,” he said.  The activists have been arrested under various sections of the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act and the Explosive Substances Act and the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act.

Advocate Thushar Nirmal, who is taking the activists’ case, tells TNM the history.

“I believe it is in 1994 that Sajan, a friend and relative of Preetha and Shaji, took a loan of Rs 2 lakh from the Lord Krishna Bank for the renovation of his workshop. Shaji had then acted as his surety, providing his property document as proof. But Sajan wouldn’t return the loan and the couple got into trouble. In the years that passed, Shaji returned half the amount – Rs 1 lakh after selling four cents of his land. Even then Sajan didn’t repay the rest.”

Lord Krishna Bank had by then merged with the Centurion Bank and later with HDFC Bank. Twenty-four years after the loan was sanctioned, the bank came knocking on Preetha and Shaji’s door, with arrears of the unpaid amount that has now grown to a much larger amount.

Meanwhile, the Debt Recovery Tribunal ordered that their house be attached.

It was when she thought she had lost everything that Preetha came across the Janakeeya Maushyavakasha Prasthanam (People's Human Rights Movement) and Jenny. On their advice, she began a strike exactly a year ago. It will be 366 days today since the ‘samara panthal’ was put up at Pathadippalam, near her house, the centre of the controversy.

(Ammini Babu, injured in the protest)

“It is the third attempt at ‘jepthi’ (attachment) that happened on Monday, when the activists got arrested. The last time they came, my mother, who had lived in this house, died, watching us struggle so much. And before that, when they came, it was just my daughter in the house. She called Sajan who convinced the officials with some technical reasons and sent them away,” Preetha says.

The family had begged the officials for some mercy when it was time for the daughter’s marriage. They took more debts three years ago for Sreekutty’s wedding.

Their son – Akhil – had to drop his higher education dreams because of the ongoing battle to save their house. “He now works as a driver like his dad, something I had promised would never happen,” Preetha says.

“The house was put for sale via an online auction. And the remaining eighteen-and-a-half cents of land were sold for Rs 37 lakh. The land is in the centre, where even one cent could nearly fetch that amount. The man who bought it – Ratheesh – is in the real estate business, and has plans to build a flat. The bank and the tribunal officials were obviously influenced,” Thushar says.

He adds, “The tribunal official, who is the recovery officer, is now undergoing a vigilance enquiry for another case, for similar accusations.”

Preetha has filed a writ petition seeking investigation into the alleged foul play and fraud by the officials of the bank and tribunal, working in collusion with the real estate mafia.

“We didn’t even know about the auction,” Preetha says. “We were trying to sell a few cents and return at least some of the amount. That’s when we were told by bank officials that our land was sold. We told them we weren’t even informed. And then a week later, we get the notice.”

They tried to reason with Ratheesh, “but he was asking us for either for Rs 1 crore – which he has now raised to Rs 1.25 crore – or three cents of land,” adds Preetha.

Now, the bank debt stands at about Rs 3 crore, and even if they were to sell the house, they wouldn’t be able to raise so much money.

Members of the ruling CPI (M) too had been part of the protest, says activist Suja Bharathy. “Minister Thomas Isaac had expressed solidarity with the couple,” she adds.

In February, when Preetha fasted for 19 days, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan promised her that her house will not be attached.

But the court told the state to implement the order or it would be contempt of court.

The court has now given three weeks for the eviction, meanwhile Preetha, Shaji and their family stare at an uncertain future.

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