"You don't have to arrest all of them, just scare them enough to know that they will face consequences," says an officer who worked with Asra Garg IPS.

Hunting the loan-sharks How a TN IPS officer went after rogue money-lenders
news Crime Wednesday, October 25, 2017 - 18:28

It has been eight years since Ramesh* suffered at the hands of a local 'kandhu vatti karan' or loan sharks at Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu. The recent case where a family of four immolated itself over similar harassment in the district makes his voice break as he recalls his own experience.

Ramesh* had borrowed Rs 1.5 lakh from a moneylender who belonged to a Dravidian party. It was meant to fund his business but the interest rate was exorbitant - 15% of the principal amount every 15 days.

"When we borrowed the sum, we were not told that we would have to pay every two weeks," recalls Ramesh. "We had no choice but to agree later as he was too powerful," he adds. 

Soon, his entire salary went into paying off the loan and he had given Rs 1.70 lakh as interest alone. And when his family couldn't cope anymore, the torture began.

"Imagine, goons waiting outside your house day and night, shouting and abusing you through the door. They would watch us 24/7. Imagine never feeling safe," he says.

"Sometimes you couldn't enter your own house because you don't know what they will do. I knew of instances where women were molested by these lenders' men and I couldn't help but be terrified for my family," he says.

Their story may seem strikingly similar to the harassment that Isakkimuthu and his wife Subbulakshmi had to endure in the months ahead of their suicide attempt. In fact, Ramesh and his family had planned to take their lives to escape this 'living hell' too.

But today they continue to live, having survived this ordeal and the only difference was - a proactive police officer. 

Asra Garg takes charge

IPS officer Asra Garg took over as Superintendent of Police Tirunelveli (Rural) in 2008.

One of the first things the officer did after taking charge was to form a dedicated team to tackle the menace of usury.

Garg asked all local stations to put up his phone number on a board so that anyone in distress could call him.

"The city police was in cahoots with the moneylender and did nothing to help us. It was at this time that we heard of IPS officer Asra Garg, who was already taking steps to weed out loan sharks and we went to him with a complaint," explains Ramesh.

After overcoming a few legal tussles over the jurisdiction of the matter, preliminary inquiries were conducted and the moneylender was arrested. A member of Garg’s special team who spoke to TNM under the condition of anonymity, says that the political pressure to let off the moneylender was immense. 

"We had to deal with a lot of calls from MLAs and MPs but you can't wipe out the industry, if you don't incur the wrath of some powerful people. This arrest had to be done to make a statement," says the police officer.

Not only was the statement made but it set the ball rolling for a larger change. 

Usury and clamping down on it

Usury is prevalent across Tamil Nadu and is an effect of the state's failing credit system. Members of the unorganised sectors or those seeking smaller loans are often turned away by banks.

This vacuum has been occupied by moneylenders who charge exorbitant interest rates, knowing the desperation with which borrowers seek loans.

The special team chose to attack the root problem. "We gathered sources at ground level to help identify major players across our jurisdiction, who were harassing over 200 people through various means while charging exorbitant interest."

There were three criteria set for the team to begin surveillance.

The first was lenders who charged more interest than was allowed in normal parlance, the second was usurers who threatened borrowers by getting their bank or land documents worth a larger amount and the third was moneylenders from a dominant caste who sexually harassed the women who borrowed money from them.

Between 2008 and 2010, close to 40 moneylenders were arrested by the Rural police. And while most of them came out on bail in less than a month, the fear was instilled. 

How did they do it?

"We had to be proactive to keep these criminals at bay. We first mapped out loan sharks across the district and sent out special teams to understand the situation there," says the officer.

The team did not wait for complaints to come to them, they went out to find willing complainants. "We persuaded and cajoled them into complaining and ensured they were protected," he explains.

The method adopted by the team, a far cry from the latest case that has shaken Tamil Nadu. 

"We have also been proactive," argues the current Tirunelveli SP Arunsakthikumar. "We have been conducting awareness programmes and asking residents to not take loans with exorbitant interests. We can only do what is lawful and take action when we receive a complaint," he claims.

Then why was there no action against the moneylenders that Isakkimuthu's family had complained about four times?

"We have to do a preliminary inquiry when we get a complaint. But in this case, the complainants were never at their residence when my team went to check," says the SP.

Ramesh scoffs at this explanation. "In my case, the moneylender had all the documents for my house and was abusing us at our homes every day. The same was happening to this family. Maybe they fled in fear?" he says.

Retrieving documents from the loan sharks

"When we received a complaint and evidence, even in oral form, we arrested the loan shark," explain the special team officer.

"Once that is done, the first thing you do is retrieve the documents they possess from different borrowers. If not, the minute they are out, they can go back to threatening the victims," he explains.

Garg and team even gave a chance to the usurers to stop the harassment before the police began to act.

Money lenders forewarned

In October 2009, 46 moneylenders from Valliyoor, Thisaiyanvilai, Radhapuram and Panagudi sat down in front of the SP for a meeting. The atmosphere was tense and the words - a clear warning.

Asra Garg stated that there will be no exorbitant interest rates charged and no harassment of borrowers. But when some loan sharks didn't toe the line, the whip was cracked and they were booked under the Goondas Act.

"Fear, that is what we were going for," says the officer from Garg's team. "You don't have to arrest all of them, just scare them enough to know that there are consequences," he explains.

Even cover-ups were exposed. "In one case, a money lender ran over a borrower with a tractor. The local police registered it as a case of accidental death but we got to the bottom of it and put the usurer behind bars," recounts the official.

For victims of loan sharks, this promise of action was a shot in the arm and made them more open to come out with complaints. 

The district administration's duty

In Isakkimuthu's case, the choice to immolate himself and his family in front of the Collector's office, was a message that could not be ignored.

"This act has a direct bearing on the system of governance in Tamil Nadu," says MG Devasahayam, a retired bureaucrat. "In the present system, district collectors have too many duties, an enormous amount of power and absolutely no supervision," he emphasises.

According to the former Collector, the lack of supervision has allowed  the district authority to come under the influence of politicians, local goondas and other men with agendas. "The Chief Secretary does not check on the collector every day, leaving him under these undesirable influences without any guidance," he says.

Tirunelveli Collector Sandeep Nandhudri, who has been at the receiving end of scathing criticism, has remained largely unreachable to the media. He had visited the family which had symbolically blamed him for their decision and merely proclaimed that, "We’ll concentrate on this serious issue by forming a police special squad to enquire into the complaints pertaining to usury.”

"Not only does this statement come too late but it also depicts a total failure of governance," says Devasahayam.  "This is a case where the police, the banking system and government have all collectively failed the common man," he concludes. 

 

(name changed to protect identity)

Show us some love! Support our journalism by becoming a TNM Member - Click here.