Saman’s father John left him penníless - virtually on the road. I knew him as a little child, pint-sized barely two feet off the ground. Today he stands tall - a young man of 26 who may have gone unnoticed, íf not for an identity disclosure in the Kurunegala Bazaar. ‘’What are you doing these days?’’ I asked him. ‘’I have to work hard to pay up a loan of five lakhs I invested in a land plot,’’ he bemoaned.
Now a father of a 4-year-old girl, and a mason by profession, he burns the midnight oil, kicking his heels to realise his magic number - a tidy sum of Rs. 10,000 a month to keep the ruthless real estate dealer at bay.
Tharanga ís a vegetable vendor from Makuluwewa running a vegetable stall near the Deduru Oya. He is also not to be missed out at the various weekly ‘pola’ or village fairs in the locality - Dambulla being his purchasing mainstay.
‘’I don’t even have time to eat,’’ says Tharanga endeavouring to beat the deadline each month - a ‘good’ Rs. 18,000 to avoid the financier’s seizing orders on his truck. The initial investment came off his wife’s pawned jewellery.
These then are just two among hundreds of youth that are in debt struggling to keep the wolf away from the door, never mind the hungry dogs that lap up millions before the batting of an eyelid under the guise of service to the people.
" Pawn brokering is big business island-wide never mind the wallowing in another’s misery. In their absence who else would give these guys the much needed monies some argue, as though the ‘concerned ‘ party is into large-scale charity "
It was Furkhan Mahroof - rooted in Galhinna Kandy, now a leading businessman in Kurunegala who in the course of conversation once asked me: ‘’Do you know why these people are so busy? It is because they are in debt.’’
Furkhan’s matrimonial inclinations brought him all the way from the UK following a ten year stint there, and ís quite boastful of his debt-free life. His revelation compelled this writer into reasearching all about debt that makes life as chaotic as a stringhopper for the area’s youth.
Following the’ high street marketing’ trend as Furkhan calls this mad rush, these guys without exception have pawned their wives’ jewellery leaving room for one to assume the rise of pawn brokers at every street corner. ‘’If you care to observe, these guys are into big business even in the vicinity of almost all private hospitals,’’ said Furkhan laughingly.
Pawn brokering is big business island-wide never mind the wallowing in another’s misery. In their absence who else would give these guys the much needed monies some argue, as though the ‘concerned ‘ party is into large-scale charity.
As a result, countless productive lives are lost in the clamour and maintenance of credit.
Furkhan making an astute observation described the imposition of stamp fees as ‘daylight robbery’.
A deal that should really close at Rs. 80,000 finally ends up in a lakh. Furkhan also referred to the high duty on imports that spirals the price of goods in the market - an invitation into higher purchase and debt. ‘’ The high duty on commodity imports leads to low profits. So, many importers prefer setting up lending agencies for the very lucrative, hassle free , quick and easy money it bring,’’ he said. Tharanga is just one of the hundreds of thousands entangled in this vicious cycle. In the final count he has paid the lending agency treble the worth of his truck.
Besides all this, public awareness on state sponsored lending institutions is near non - existent. Their services have not reached the youth in the country’s interior. If it was so, Tharanga may not have become a victim of the circumstances that he is in today - netted in a private lending agency and being fleeced to the core. Besides all this, credit cards, visa cards and automated banking systems have reduced cash to plastic monies, says a high ranking police officer into police training.
Though neck-deep in debt, the unending needs of women as well compel their men from the proverbial frying pan into the fire. For instance Tharanga survives with head above water in his vegetable venture. ‘’There’s food on the table for my family but what’s worrying me is my indebtedness,’’ he said tearfully. Missing out on priorities is his wife, who notwithstanding the pawned jewellery and credit burdened-truck is now harassing Tharanga for a new house, despite the ancestral property he is heir to in nearby Otuwela.
" Tharanga is just one of the hundreds of thousands entangled in this vicious cycle. In the final count he has paid the lending agency treble the worth of his truck "
Significantly, the keeping up with the Jones’ mentality is not without its presence even in the village. Yet, wełl-tiled washrooms with modern accessories go unused. Empty double door fridges stand very elegantly with just half a coconut inside. Washing machines remain untouched while hand washed clothes are preferred. Unused gas cookers and blenders are a common sight in well done up pantries while women keep blowing into the traditional hearth. Very much like in Colombo, tie-clad sales reps throng shops to dispose popular brands of all products. These villages rooted in the north western province are no longer the sleepy localities this writer once knew. Status, money and power are much respected regardless of how one gets there.
If the middle man, the higher purchase dealer, the pawn broker, the real estate owner and who else continue to remain protagonists in the rural/urban economy where people are steeped in debt, piling up unused luxury items in their mortgaged houses, could that be the benchmark of a developed society? Overburdened with numerous pressures these youngsters resort to alcohol, drugs robbery and even suicide as well not knowing a solution to their indebtedness.
Many believe the state to be the only fall-back to bring about an instrumental mechanism to relieve the peopłe from getting embroiled in the crisis of debt. Turning a blind eye to unscrupulous lending agencies is no answer to relieving a debt-ridden population.
The socíal cost of this existing economic status quo has led to alcoholism, famíly feuds, broken homes and even suicides. Providing infrastructure alone will not suffice. If building roads and bridges are important, on equal footing should be the happiness of a country’s citizenry. Towards this end the state must get its act together if it is sincere in social well - being.