By The Financial ExpressI’m writing this article after I visited a bank branch in the southern state of Tamil Nadu where a woman with a stroller walked past me, and handed over an envelope.
Inside, she had written: “Your debt is due, and we need your help to pay it off.”
“You have to be patient and help us,” she told me, standing beside the bank branch’s entrance.
The lady, who declined to give her name, said that she had recently retired from her job as a legal secretary with the state’s top financial services regulator, and had decided to take matters into her own hands.
The woman said she has been working in the state since 2011, and worked as a paralegal and solicitor for seven years.
She was expecting her debts to be paid by the end of this month, but she said that the State Bank of India (SBI) told her it would not be able to pay the debts until September, and then, by then, her debts would be “satisfied”.
“If they don’t, then we will take matters to the Supreme Court, and if it doesn’t come out in favour of us, we will go to the courts,” she said.
“They can’t say we are just going to settle our debts with them.
If they want to do it, they can.”
The state government of Tamilnadu has taken the unusual step of issuing a statement in response to the woman’s distress.
“SBI has no legal power to discharge the debt of the woman,” said the statement, which is signed by the SBI secretary general, and is being distributed by the government.
“The government has a responsibility to ensure that all those who are entitled to the relief of this law have a chance to claim it,” it said.
The state’s finance minister, Jayant Sinha, said in a tweet on Tuesday that the government would take action against those who had allegedly misused the law.
The statement also stated that the woman had asked the bank to transfer her bank account details to her name to avoid being evicted, as this would result in her “paying the money”.
The statement, however, did not specify the amount of the debt.
While some banks in Tamil Nadu have said they have had trouble paying off their loans, it is unclear whether this is the first time a woman has had to pay off her debt with her own money.
In November last year, the woman told me she had been receiving “up to 10-15 per cent interest” on her bank accounts for years, and that she was “furious” that the SNCL-C Bank, one of the country’s biggest lenders, was not offering her an interest-free loan.
She said she was able to afford her loans because she “always worked for the government” and “always put in my hours”.
“I never went to the bank for the interest, I never used my savings,” she recalled.
“I have two jobs, I can’t earn enough to pay my rent, I have to support my two kids.
I am really desperate.”
The SNCl-C has denied any wrongdoing and said it had taken appropriate steps to “reduce the amount that is owed”.
The woman’s case is not unique.
The State Bank has also had a few problems with its finances.
Last year, two employees were jailed for their role in a botched cash-for-debt scheme that saw the bank pay out as much as $10,000 in deposits and then pocket the difference.
In July, the bank’s credit rating was downgraded, with Moody’s noting the bank has “considerable liquidity challenges”.
The bank’s president, Arun Bhatnagar, said the bank was not responsible for the state government’s decision to close the branch, and said that he had assured the state treasury that the bank would not have to close any of its branches in the next few days.
“We will be able reopen the branch once the bank is fully restored,” he said.