Preetha Shaji has paid Rs 43.5 lakh – the amount she had been asked to by the court – at HDFC Bank on Saturday, to reclaim her property at Pathadipalam, Ernakulam. The Kerala High Court had in its February 19 order said Preetha should pay the amount to HDFC Bank, which had claimed and auctioned off her property after her husband Shaji had pledged it as guarantee for another man’s bank loan that’s been long defaulted. The order also asked that an amount of Rs 1.8 lakh be paid to Ratheesh, the man who bought the land at the auction, but apparently his advocate refused to take it and asked Preetha and Shaji to give it to the court.
“We crowd-sourced the money mostly with the help of the members of the Anti-Sarfaesi People’s Movement,” says Preetha, sounding cheerful after years of fighting for her 18.5 cents of land, that is worth Rs 2 crore but had been auctioned off for a mere Rs 37 lakh. Preetha is thankful to the people who came forward to help her and for the support of activists like Manuel who made it possible to raise the money in five days.
“We didn’t approach any big shots – rich men or political parties. It is mostly common people that came forward – women pawning their jewellery and poor people bringing their title deeds. Even when they know that this is a case where a couple (Preetha and Shaji) had landed in trouble because of once pledging their title deed, they are ready to do the same. Because that’s how much they are all troubled by banks and their obscure laws. They are also experiencing similar hardships, most don’t know what the Sarfaesi Act is, which can evict them from their homes,” says Manuel. 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.
In five days, well-wishers gave so much that Preetha and Shaji got Rs 50 lakh, Rs 4 lakh more than what they needed. Manuel and others are now busy telling contributors to stop giving more money. “There are tensions on many levels in connection with the Sarfaesi Act and the Debt Recovery Tribunal. For instance, the interest piles up so much so soon. Poor people are left with no substitutes for applying loans. Smaller banks are merging into bigger ones, public banks have all become the SBI. They all decide to give loans only to capitalists. They evict poor people who default an amount of Rs 1 lakh but ignore the millions that big shots borrow,” Manuel says.
In 1994, it was only an amount of Rs 2 lakh that Preetha and Shaji’s relative Sajan had taken a loan of, and Shaji stood surety for. Twenty-five years later and after a repayment of Rs 1 lakh that Shaji paid after selling four cents of his land, the debt to the bank had accumulated to an amount of Rs 3 crore. When repeated attempts by the bank to attach Preetha’s house happened, they began protesting a year and a half ago. For 600 days, Preetha and Shaji, with the support of activists and members of the Anti- Sarfaesi People’s Movement, protested. By then the bank had auctioned off their land to Ratheesh. It is this auction that the High Court order declared void last month and asked Preetha to pay up by March 15.
“I am happy that we have got our home back. We should be able to get the key to the house from the village office by Tuesday. The amounts that we owe the nice people who gave us their meagre belongings shall be paid back with the loan that Sajan – for whom we originally stood as guarantors and had gone through so much – takes. This was discussed after a meeting with the CPI(M) district secretary CN Mohanan on the assurance that Sajan shall be able to avail the loan,” Preetha says.
But the basic problem – the controversial act and the legalities surrounding it – continues to exist, Manuel says. The government’s suggestion of proposing a Preetha Shaji Act against such huge interests has not borne fruit, he says. Political parties and the media should come forward and help, Manuel adds.