At 11 am on Sunday, Preetha Shaji entered her house in Pathadipalam, Ernakulam after months of staying away from it, nearly losing it, fighting for it, and finally winning it back. An hour before that, she invited everyone who supported her in her fight, and political leaders from the ruling side and the opposition to join her in a gathering where three effigies were burnt. Education minister C Raveendranath and Congress leader VM Sudheeran came in solidarity.
â€śWe burnt three faces, representing the real estate, the bank and the Debt Recovery Tribunal (DRT) â€“ the three bodies that made us suffer for so many years,â€ť Preetha Shaji says on Monday morning. She is on her way to begin the community service the court had asked her and her husband Shaji to do, as punishment for not handing over the house earlier to the party that bought it at an auction, defying a court ruling.
The auction was not Preethaâ€™s but the bankâ€™s, after the loan that the couple had once stood guarantee for could not be returned. The Sarfaesi Act that was used to get hold of their property turned Preetha and Shajiâ€™s lives upside down when they fought for their precious piece of land â€“ 22.5 cents in all originally â€“ for 24 years.
The couple had taken the loan for a relative of Shajiâ€™s and it was, in 1994, Rs 2 lakh. But it mounted on as the original amount could not be returned, and Shaji once went on to sell four cents of his land to repay half of it. But it kept on piling up till in 2018, the amount stood at a whopping Rs 3 crore.
The bank, which had by then merged with HDFC, conducted an auction and sold Preetha and Shajiâ€™s 18.5 cents of land and the house for Rs 37 lakh, reportedly to a realtor. But Preetha and Shaji stood their ground, and they were supported by the people around them and by members of the Anti-Sarfaesi Act. A 600-day long protest, that included several days of fasting by Preetha, ended in a court order last month that declared the auction void but asked the couple to pay Rs 43.5 lakh to the bank and another Rs 1.8 lakh to the party that bought the land. This they did, before the deadline, crowd-sourcing from people who were more than willing to contribute money and pledge their land, even after knowing what it once did to Preetha and Shaji.
They had all come on Sunday morning to witness the couple and their children and grandchildren enter the house, newly decorated with paintings by artists of Kalakakshi.
Preetha does not mind the 100 hours of community service. â€śWhat is a hundred hours of community service after the struggle we faced for 24 years?â€ť she asks cheerfully, on her way to the Palliative Care department at the Government hospitals in Thevara and Kadavanthara.