Pound of flesh

25 Feb 2019


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

A FEATURE (‘For Peshawar’s greedy loan sharks, needy men and women are easy bait’) on this organisation’s web edition a few days ago told a heartbreaking story. On a December evening in 2008, in Peshawar, a gentleman named Iqbal Mohammed Lodhi retired to an upstairs room of his quarters, along with his two sons. They told the women of the family to not disturb them as they would be praying.

Before retiring, the men borrowed a pen from one of Iqbal’s granddaughters so they could accurately record their rakats. The next day, the granddaughter went to retrieve her pen, for she had an exam to take. The room her father, uncle and grandfather were in was locked, and she would get no response from them. The panic-stricken girl alerted the rest of the family. As these things go, eventually neighbours were called in and the door to the room was broken down.

There lay Iqbal in a pool of blood, along with his progeny, the pistol still in his hand, according to the police.

Of course, no one can pass judgement on what the three men’s motives could have been for the ultimate step they undertook, but the facts of the case were clear — again, according to the police. Iqbal ran a small garments shop in the Gora Bazaar of the city’s Saddar area. A few years previously, he had taken out a loan from a private party to expand his business, but according to the FIR filed by his widow, Seema, the loan had carried heavy usury charges. The family was straining under debt that Iqbal saw they could not possibly repay, with violence and intimidation being a reality that always paced with him and his sons.

In their helplessness, people in need of funds turn to Shylocks.

The police started an investigation, but on the third day found that the women of the family had moved under cover of the night and shifted to Lahore. It turned out that Iqbal had approached several banks for that same loan but had been turned down, which is when he turned to the proverbial Shylock.

An initial loan of a modest Rs200,000 ballooned to several millions given the interest the moneylender was charging, and thus, said the police, Iqbal and his sons must have decided to end their lives — business lost, all prospects and avenues of hope forsaken, and vengeance just half a step away. After all, during the months that had passed since Iqbal had crossed the deadline for the repayment of the loan, thugs had been regularly arriving at the doorstep to beat up the male members of the family and abuse the female.

Across the country, in Karachi, there was a woman, Surraiya, who eked out a living as a housemaid, her husband a person who found work as a driver or a handyman where he could — when he could. The family decided that the gentleman should purchase a motorbike, so that the option of working as a delivery man in any one the city’s many eateries would become available. Of course the banks turned them down, so they turned to a Shylock. The interest rate demanded was some 30 per cent, so much so that Surraiya was eventually giving up a large chunk of her salary (as a housemaid) to just pay the mounting monthly interest, without even touching the capital — to the cost of feeding the family.

Surraiya, it turned out, was one of the lucky ones. Her well-heeled employers paid attention, did the maths, realised that there was no way her family could repay the debt, and settled it for her, going to Shylock with a lawyer and bits of paper to receive an assurance that there would be no further harassment.

These two stories are two ends of a spectrum within whose bounds tragedies play out across the country, every day. In the perceived absence of support offered by the state, ramshackle and uncaring as it is, people in need of funds turn to the Shylocks. The reasons are myriad, and unremarkable, from the need to expand an enterprise or marry off a child, or pay rent. And hundreds of families find themselves in dire financial straits as a result, at the mercy of Shylocks that will not hesitate in resorting to extremes to obtain their pounds of flesh.

But I use the word ‘perceived’ with purpose. Certainly, the state could do much, much more for citizens, and when Prime Minister Imran Khan talks about a ‘welfare state’ then in addition to housing, this is one of the issues that need to urgently be addressed. That said, the years have produced some recourse for citizens to funds fronted by the state. The Benazir Income Support Programme is one, where thousands of people — primarily women, and mostly in the rural areas — have been helped to stand up. There is the Qarza-i-Hasna programme that thousands of people, mostly students, have benefited from.

The issue is not that financial help is not available, but that many people simply don’t know how to access it. Perhaps that is a deficiency worth resolving.

The writer is a member of staff.


Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2019